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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
October 29, 2003
Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
The James S. Brady Briefing Room
12:20 P.M. EST
MR. McCLELLAN: I will dispense with any opening remarks and go straight to questions. Helen, do you have one?
Q Yes --
MR. McCLELLAN: You're now back.
Q I'd like to know when the President thinks that this whole opposition and fighting by the opposition will stop, and there will be a real clear way to restore and reconstruct Iraq.
MR. McCLELLAN: And there will be a what -- I'm sorry, what was the last part of your question?
Q When does he think all this -- the fighting and shooting and everything will stop in Iraq?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, there are lots of parts of Iraq that have been made more secure. There are still dangerous people, it still remains a dangerous place, as the President talked about yesterday, there are still dangerous people there -- the Baathists and the foreign terrorists who seek to spread fear and chaos, who target innocent civilians in order to intimidate people. And we will not be intimidated. We will stay the course.
We are working on the security front to stay on the offensive through targeted strikes and making sure that our forces can deploy quickly to confront those killers before they can carry out their attacks.
Q We killed six Iraqis --
MR. McCLELLAN: Let me finish. We're working with the Iraqis to accelerate our efforts to involve them in the security of their own country. There are some 85,000 Iraqis who are now involved in helping with the security of their country so that they can help realize a better future for the entire country. And so they're involved in the border patrol efforts; they're involved in protection of facilities; they're involved in the police forces; they're involved in a new army; they're involved in civilian defense forces. And so we'll continue to do that, continue to work with the Iraqis side by side with them to improve the security for their country.
Q Did you read the story in The New York Times on the killing of the six Iraqis, and they couldn't get any information on how it happened?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that again, it goes to my point that I'm making is that these killers, these terrorists in Iraq target innocent civilians because they're trying to deny the Iraqi people a peaceful, free and prosperous future. And we will stay the course because this is important for the future of the Iraqi people and important for the future of the world. We're working to make the world a safer place, and the work that we are carrying out in Iraq is very important. The stakes are very high. And it's important that we continue to stay the course.
Q Do you really think it's safer?
MR. McCLELLAN: Steve, go ahead.
Q Iran is --
MR. McCLELLAN: The world, yes.
Q Iran is refusing to turn over intelligence about the al Qaeda members it has to the United States. Have they told you that? Or what's the upshot of that?
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, we continue to -- as do other countries, I would point out, continue to urge the Iranians to change their behavior on a number of fronts. That's one of them right there, is that any al Qaeda terrorist that they have in their country, they need to turn them over to their country of origin, or to the United States. And we will continue to make that concern very well-known to the Iraqis -- I mean to the Iranians.
Q Why now revive talks with Iran?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?
Q Why now --
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think that's what was said.
Q Well, isn't the administration now open to resuming talks with Iran?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think what Secretary Armitage said yesterday in his testimony was reiterating administration policy. And he -- we have long had existing, established channels of communication with Iran. And we will continue to use those channels to raise issues of mutual concern.
But our policy towards Iran remains the same. We are continuing to insist that they abide by their international obligations on nonproliferation, that they stop supporting terrorism, and that they turn over to the countries of origin the al Qaeda terrorists that they are now harboring. And they need to change their behavior before we can move forward. But what Secretary Armitage said is that we are prepared to, if it's in our interest, to talk to them about areas of mutual concern. But we've always said that.
Q But, yes, but you haven't had any talks with them since May. Armitage's testimony yesterday seemed to suggest that you were willing to consider a resumption of talks --
MR. McCLELLAN: He stressed that if it served our interest. I mean, look at his testimony and look at what he said.
Q -- talks did serve your interests. But does it now serve our interest to resume talks with Iran to talk about some of the things that you just mentioned?
MR. McCLELLAN: And look back to what the President just recently said, I think it was last week. He said that Iran must change its course, change its behavior, and that that's -- particularly on the issue of its relationship with al Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam terrorist organizations, and that that would be -- if they could resolve that issue, that would be an important step in our relations. But we cannot move forward without that step. There are still serious concerns we have with Iran and they need to address.
Q But are those serious concerns now be taken up directly with them or --
MR. McCLELLAN: Let me point to what Secretary Armitage said yesterday. He said, after talking about some of these concerns and going through that, he said, we are prepared to meet again in the future, but only if that would serve U.S. interests. And the talks that you mentioned were specifically related to Afghanistan and Iraq, and that's what those talks were about. There was some mutual discussion -- well, discussions about issues of mutual concern.
Q One other thing if I could. Have you reached a deal yet with the 9/11 commission about the President's daily brief, how the President's --
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't have any updates. We continue to discuss some of the remaining issues that are involved there. We are, as the President pointed out yesterday, working in a spirit of cooperation because we support the efforts of the 9/11 commission. And if there are things that we can learn from decisions leading up to September 11th that will help us prevent future attacks, we want to know that information.
Q Why are you holding these documents back?
Q Did I understand the President correctly to say that he would, in fact, consider letting them take a look at some of these things for some specific dates?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there's -- one, we've already provided unprecedented cooperation and access to information for the commission. I think that they will tell you that. More than 2 million pages of documents that we've provided to the commission, hundreds of interviews. We -- well, first of all, there are lots of ways to provide information to the commission, and we will continue working with them to resolve any of those remaining issues. But those are discussions we're having with the commission, in the same spirit that I just mentioned, and that is one of cooperation and working together to help them meet their deadlines and finish their work.
Q What's your understanding of what the President volunteered yesterday to do for the commission?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think if you look back at what he said, he said we're continuing to work with the chairmen of the commission to resolve --
Q He said he thought he could make some of those things available for them to look at.
MR. McCLELLAN: -- to resolve those issues. That's what I said, there's lots of ways to provide information to the commission, and we will continue working with them to -- we're working with them right now to resolve those remaining issues.
Q But he did say that he thought that they could find a way for the commission members to look at some of the presidential daily briefings. Is that your understanding?
MR. McCLELLAN: We're working with them and we have been providing information that they need to finish their work, and we'll continue to work with them to make sure they have the information they need to complete their work. But those are discussions that are being had with the commission, and we'll continue to have those discussions so that we can move quickly.
Q Will you commit to keeping us informed as to what the agreement is?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think you may want to get information from the commission, but we are working with them to resolve those remaining issues.
Q Why can't you provide everything they ask for?
Q If Iran and North Korea do not cooperate at all, what is the alternative? Is the military option still on the table?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we've always said -- the President never takes options off the table, but we are working to resolve both those issues in a multilateral forum. And I would suggest to you that those multilateral approaches are working. Countries in the region with North Korea are coming together and are speaking with a unified, single voice, saying that North Korea needs to end its nuclear weapons program once and for all, and in a verifiable and irreversible way. And we will continue sending that message and we hope that they will agree to a new round of talks, so that we can continue moving forward on these efforts.
In terms of Iran, we welcome the efforts by the British, by the Germans and by the French last week to get a commitment from Iran. But what Iran needs to do now is to come clean and fully comply with its international obligations. It's essential that they follow through on what they have committed to. But again, the international community is working together to confront these proliferation issues.
Q Do you think they would agree to a military option if it came to it?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry.
Q Do you think the international community --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, that's not where we are. But we never take options off the table.
Q Scott, did the President misspeak yesterday in the Rose Garden when he talking about the banner that was behind him when he was on the USS Abraham Lincoln? Did he misspeak when he said the White House --
MR. McCLELLAN: In what way?
Q When he said the White House press advance had nothing to do with --
MR. McCLELLAN: That's not what he said. That's not what he said. Do you recall what he said?
Q He said, I believe --
MR. McCLELLAN: He said -- he said that it was put up by members of the USS Abraham Lincoln saying that their mission was accomplished. The President was pleased to personally thank our sailors and aviators and naval officers on board the USS Lincoln for their service and sacrifice after what was a very lengthy deployment. It was the Navy, the people on board the ship who had the idea of this banner and made the suggestion, because they wanted to have a way to commemorate the fact that these sailors and the crew on board the ship had completed their mission, after a very lengthy deployment. And the President was --
Q He also said that his advance team hadn't had any part in it. And you're now -- you're now saying that you actually did create the banner.
MR. McCLELLAN: That's not what he said. That is not what he said. Look back at what he said. We said all along, and we said previously that it was the idea -- that the idea of the banner -- for the banner was suggested by those on board on ship. And they asked --
Q So who ordered --
MR. McCLELLAN: And they asked -- they asked if we could help take care of the production of the banner. And we more than happy to do so because this is a very nice way to pay tribute to our sailors and aviators and men and women in the military who are on board that ship for a job well done.
Q Scott, just to follow up , did you not have anything to do, though, with the placement of the banner? I know the White House often makes sure that things are placed right, behind the President so that when it's on the TV --
MR. McCLELLAN: Of course, our advance people work closely with people at event sites when the President is participating in an event. But again, this was an idea that was suggested by those on board the ship.
Q Scott, knowing what we know now, that the Navy, apparently they say that they did request this banner, that what the President said was technically accurate, but would you concede that the gist of what he was saying was misleading because it left the impression for -- that he was saying that the White House didn't have anything to do it. You don't think it was misleading?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, that's not what he -- no, that's not what he said.
Q It's not what he said literally, but --
MR. McCLELLAN: And keep in mind what this -- what this --
Q It's what he suggested.
MR. McCLELLAN: That is not what he said. This was about paying tribute to our men and women in the military for a job well done, for a mission that they had accomplished after a very lengthy deployment. And the President was proud to do that.
Q Now, given the fact that this was six months ago, and there were lots of questions about this, why did he feel the need to talk about who made this banner now, as opposed to --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, it came up in a question. But there's been some reporting --
Q -- specifically asked --
MR. McCLELLAN: -- there has been some reporting that mischaracterized the actual event.
Q What do you mean by that?
MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead, Mark.
Q Are you denying now that the President had the distinct intention at the time of that speech that Americans would see that picture and think the mission in Iraq has been accomplished, the overall mission?
MR. McCLELLAN: What I'm saying is that this was about paying tribute to our sailors and aviators and naval officers on board the USS Lincoln. That's what this was about. Let's keep that in context. And the President was pleased to personally go on board the USS Lincoln and thank our men and women in the military for an outstanding job, for accomplishing their mission, and for -- when they were returning to the United States.
Q The President did not want Americans to see "mission accomplished" and think, great, the war is over?
MR. McCLELLAN: The idea for the banner and the idea for the sign was suggested by those on board ship. And we were pleased to help them with that.
Q And he never knew that would be the interpretation, that the mission -- his mission was accomplished?
MR. McCLELLAN: The mission for those people on board the ship was accomplished.
Q But the President didn't know that this would be interpreted throughout the world that we had -- that the combat mission was over, basically?
MR. McCLELLAN: The major combat operations were over. That's what the President said in his remarks. But he also went on to say that there are difficulties that remain and dangers that continue to exist, and that it's important that we stay the course and finish our work and continue to work with the Iraqi people to help them realize a better future. And that's exactly what we are doing right now.
Q Let me follow up on that. When this happened, when the event happened, all of us reported that the President made this speech under a banner "mission accomplished." Why at the time did you not say -- take pains to tell us, actually, it was the Navy's idea, it wasn't ours?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think the reports -- it was later, after the fact, that some of the reports mischaracterized what had happened. You had a number of men and women in the military on board that ship, sailors, aviators, naval officers, that were on board that ship, they were returning back to the United States and returning to -- one stop along their way -- to their home port up in Washington, I believe -- the state of Washington, stopping in San Diego. And those on board the ship thought it was nice way to say to all those on board the ship, thank you for a job well done. And the President personally went there to do that.
Q But the President did --
Q I just want to take a break from bannergate for a minute --
Q Could we stay on this, Scott?
MR. McCLELLAN: We can stay on banner. We can stay on banner, and I'll come to it. Go ahead, Ken.
Q I believe you said a little while ago that we previously said that the banner was the idea of the Navy. When did you previously say that? Can you point to any statements before yesterday?
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, I think that some of our staff has previously pointed out when asked that the Navy came up with the idea for the banner. The Navy themself -- if you'll call the people involved --
Q I understand yesterday --
MR. McCLELLAN: -- they would say that.
Q Before yesterday, when did you say that? Can you point us to something?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, there was reporting -- I believe others had said previously that this was something that was asked for by the Navy because there was previous reporting about this, about the whole banner. And we pointed out at that point that the banner was something that was suggested by the Navy.
Q When was that?
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't have the exact dates. I didn't bring the articles with me, but if you look back at some of the coverage, I think you will find it.
Did you have one?
Q Why wasn't this said at the very beginning? Because any reasonable person would look at the photographs and look at the video and say the President is saying that what the U.S. forces have been doing in the Iraq theater is essentially over.
MR. McCLELLAN: He said the major combat operations were over in his remarks.
Q That's right. Why wasn't -- but why wasn't it clarified --
MR. McCLELLAN: He was on board the USS Lincoln --
Q -- that the "mission accomplished" banner --
MR. McCLELLAN: He was on board the USS Lincoln that was returning home and there were --
Q But that wasn't said --
MR. McCLELLAN: And there were -- there a number of sailors and aviators --
Q Why didn't he say it?
MR. McCLELLAN: -- and crew on board that ship that were returning home to port.
Q Why didn't the President indicate --
MR. McCLELLAN: And I think -- I think you may want to ask them. I think they may have left that banner up for a little while afterwards.
Q Why didn't the President, when he was making this nationally televised addressed, reference the sign over his right shoulder and say, this is paying tribute to the --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, you're wrong because the President did thank those on board the ship for the job that they had done --
Q But he didn't make the connection between the sign --
MR. McCLELLAN: -- he did thank the people for the job well done that were on board the USS Lincoln. So I think you've got that wrong.
Q Scott, given the attack on Monday in Baghdad, does the President consider that to be major combat?
MR. McCLELLAN: Sorry?
Q The suicide attacks on Monday --
MR. McCLELLAN: I said there are difficulties that remain, and obviously, there's a security situation -- he's always said that there were dangers that continue to exist and that we continue to pursue the Baathists, the holdouts of Saddam Hussein's regime, and the foreign terrorists that have come into the country. We will continue to do that to help the Iraqi people realize a free, peaceful and democratic future.
Q If I can just follow then. My question is, given that the President is saying that these insurgents are getting more desperate as the United States makes more progress, and the fact that the United States has yet to find weapons of mass destruction, is there any concern that with those weapons out there, that they may end up somehow being used --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, our military is addressing all those issues. They're working to make sure that everything you just mentioned there is addressed, and they're doing an outstanding job. Our military is staying on the offensive, going after the holdouts of the former regime and the foreign terrorists who are in the country. They will continue to do that, using targeted precision strikes and deploying quickly to prevent attacks from happening. And you ought to ask them specific questions about that.
In terms of what you mentioned on weapons, the fact of the matter is that the Interim Report, while Dr. Kay continues to do his work, the Interim Report showed that Saddam Hussein was in serious breach of Resolution 1441, which called for serious consequences. And the President believes that you have to follow through on what you say you're going to do, and that's exactly what we did. The world is a better place and a safer place with Saddam Hussein removed from power. And America is more secure because of it.
Q My question had more to do with whether or not there was concern that these weapons may fall into the wrong hands, if the U.S. hasn't discovered them yet --
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, and I think the military has been addressing that in their briefings.
Q This is on judicial nominees. The website of the Black Commentator Magazine has a political cartoon that shows judicial nominee Janice Rogers Brown with a huge Afro and a house maid's apron. The cartoon was displayed at her Senate hearing last week. Would you comment on the use of this cartoon and give us your opinion on whether the fact that it was published by blacks makes it any less offensive?
MR. McCLELLAN: One, I haven't seen the cartoon. But I will continue to emphasize the importance of the Senate moving forward on the President's judicial nominees. They are exceptionally well-qualified and they are people that will interpret the law, not make law from the bench, and that we should not be politicizing these appointees. It's important that we get these appointees -- these nominees in place. And so the President will continue urging the Senate to act. But I haven't seen that specific one.
Q Can you specifically say something in support of Janice Rogers Brown?
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, she's an exceptionally well-qualified nominee, and the President urges the Senate to move forward quickly on her nomination, as he does with other nominees.
Q You have in your possession I think two-thirds or maybe more of the 55 people most wanted in Iraq. I assume they have been interrogated fully. Have you had any cooperation from them, whatsoever, as far as location of weapons of mass destruction or the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein?
MR. McCLELLAN: You need to direct those questions to the military in terms of the information that they are obtaining. We are continuing -- when we talk about ways that we are working to improve the security situation in that part of the Baghdad area that remains dangerous, we also talk about improving intelligence-gathering. And we're getting more and more help from the Iraqi people themselves in that human intelligence-gathering, and getting actionable intelligence that we can act on to prevent attacks from happening in the first place.
Q I have a follow-up -- on another issue. Governor-elect Schwarzenegger is in Washington. Has the President talked to him or Governor Davis after the fires started --
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't have any updates on conversations he had. Obviously, FEMA Director Mike Brown has been in the region; I think he's briefing congressional people today. We are continuing to monitor the situation and make sure that the area -- that California has the resources they need to fight these fires and bring them fully under control and protect the property and homes of people in the area, and the lives, as well.
Q Scott, the President said yesterday that the United States was shifting tactics in Iraq and it was hardening targets, there were blockades and more checkpoints. Is the President -- can you tell us how involved the President is in the discussion of tactics and the planning for dealing with --
MR. McCLELLAN: The President meets with or talks with his military leaders and the Secretary of Defense on a regular basis. General Abizaid has been back here for a few days; there was a National Security Council meeting earlier. The President asked those questions, to make sure that they have what they need. But as the President pointed out yesterday, we are adjusting to the enemy as needed, and it's important that our commanders in the field have the flexibility to adapt to the security situation as it dictates.
We will continue to, as we have been, work to enhance and accelerate our efforts on all fronts -- the political front, the security front, the reconstruction front, including the economic front, as well. And urge Congress -- we'll be urging -- continue to urge Congress on the wartime supplemental. It's important to make sure that our troops have all the resources they need, which most of that supplemental goes toward. And then there's a part of it that goes to reconstruction. And as we move forward on bringing about a civil society, that helps improve the security situation for our troops to be able to succeed and for the Iraqi people to be able to realize a better future.
We are working to bring more and more Iraqis into the security of their country through the police forces, through border patrol, through their own army, and through civil defense forces. So we will continue to work on those fronts and accelerate our efforts.
Q Is he making suggestions, or is the President basically just briefed on what the commanders think should --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, he asked the military leaders these questions, as he pointed out yesterday, to make sure that they have what they need. And that's what we will continue to do. But we rely on our military leaders in the region to make the best judgments in terms of assessing the situation and what is needed. And he gives them the flexibility they need to go out there and adapt to the situation as it dictates.
Q There is now a discussion of reassigning intelligence people, and a decision hasn't been made, but there is a discussion about that. Doesn't that suggest that you are severely lacking in one area of expertise, that additional people with that are needed, if you're discussing --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I'm not getting into confirming anything that you just brought up in the first part of your question. I think those are questions you need to direct toward the military. I'll leave it to the military to discuss what operations they are carrying out and to discuss the decisions that they make on the ground there.
Q Can I follow up on that? On the same issue, we ran a story this morning about the trade-off between hunting for WMD and using intelligence people for these current issues that you're discussing. Without getting into the specific deployments, are you --
MR. McCLELLAN: You're not promoting your own stories, are you?
Q I would never do something like that, Scott. I didn't write it, so I can --
MR. McCLELLAN: I know, I know.
Q Without getting into the specific deployments, is it the White House view that the higher priority right now has to be put on intelligence for current issues, or searching for WMD that may or may not have been --
MR. McCLELLAN: There are a number of important priorities, and you mentioned a couple of them. The military will make the decisions in terms of what resources are needed, and we will work from our end to make sure they have all the resources and the best equipment and the best available technology they need to carry out their objectives. That's what --
Q Does the White House get involved in the question which of those is the higher priority?
MR. McCLELLAN: -- that's what we'll do. But those are decisions -- in terms of the use of resources, those are decisions that we rely on the military to make. And we will make sure that they have the resources they need. I think you need to direct that specific question to military.
Q I was specifically not asking about how to redirect the resources. The question was, in the setting of the priorities, where does the President put those two?
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, those are important priorities.
Q And how does he rank those two?
MR. McCLELLAN: Those are important priorities. I would say that they're both important priorities.
Q Scott, in the six months since the President declared an end to major combat operations, there have been more than 200 fatalities, more than a thousand wounded, weapons have not been found, and Saddam remains at large. Was it a mistake for the President to tell the American people six months ago, in essence, the worst is behind us, and the United States has prevailed in Iraq?
MR. McCLELLAN: He said that difficulties still remain -- go back and look at his remarks -- and that there are dangers that still exist, and there's still a lot of important work to complete. That's what the President said in his remarks.
Yes, major combat operations were over. That's why he said that at
that point. But we continue to work to help the Iraqi people realize a better future. This is about helping the Iraqi people realize a free, peaceful, democratic and prosperous future, which, in turn, will help make the world a better and safer place. The world is a better and safer place because of the action that the President took to remove Saddam Hussein from power.
Q Did that speech raise expectations in the American public?
MR. McCLELLAN: Our military -- our military did an outstanding job in moving swiftly, rapidly and with great precision to avoid innocent people being killed by removing the regime while -- targeting a regime and removing a regime from power while going to great lengths to avoid the deaths of innocent people. And they acted in an outstanding way to achieve that important objective and remove Saddam Hussein from power. But now we are in the reconstruction period when we're moving toward a brighter future for the Iraqi people, and it's important that we continue to stay the course and finish the job in Iraq.
Q On the Foreign Service Corporation bill, I wondered if you could clarify a comment you made this morning when you said that the administration favors broadening tax relief to all job creators, including manufacturers?
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, that's in a general approach, broader tax relief.
Q Are you signaling then that it's all right for this bill to extend relief to architectural and engineering firms which have not been adversely affected by the WTO ruling, such as Halliburton --
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, what we're saying on the WTO ruling is that we encourage -- well, first of all, both the Senate and the House have passed legislation. We encourage both chambers to act this year to pass legislation that complies with the World Trade Organization's ruling on this matter and avoids triggering trade sanctions by the European Union. That's what our priority is.
And we also encourage Congress to replace the ETI provisions, as they're known, with tax provisions that promote the competitiveness of American manufacturers and other job-creating sectors of the U.S. economy. So that's what we're continuing to encourage. We're working with members of Congress to get this legislation passed that will address the WTO ruling and avoid triggering sanctions.
Q And also I have a question on this issue of the banner and your reference to previous public comments made by staff. Are you referring to the October 9th press forum in which Dan Bartlett was a panelist, and in which, when he was asked to give examples of images or pictures that either present the White House in a positive or a negative light, he first gave the example of the First Lady, the famous kiss in France, that was rendered to the First Lady. Then as a second example, he volunteered the picture of the banner. And while he -- to the best of my knowledge, this was also the first time that he, or anyone, publicly on the staff indicated that the banner was not a White House idea --
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, I don't know the exact -- again, I don't the exact time period. But we had previously said what we said yesterday.
Q The point was when he offered this example that it was essentially a picture that backfired.
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?
Q It was essentially a picture that backfired --
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know about that. So I think I've addressed this matter previously. I don't know that I agree with the way you're characterizing it.
Q Two things. Earlier this year, General Boykin said the following: "George Bush was not elected by a majority of voters in the United States, he was appointed by God." Does the President believe that God played any role in getting him to the White House?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, the President has addressed that matter previously.
Q Not that --
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, he's addressed that matter previously. I'm not going to go back through it.
Q Okay, well, I have a second question.
MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead.
Q The second question is, yesterday, the President was asked about troop strength levels through next year, and he said it was a trick question. In what sense was it a trick question?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he went on to talk about how he relies on his military commanders in the region, General Abizaid in this instance, to make the decisions in terms of what is needed. And he will continue to do that and continue to ask the questions, do you have the resources you need? Do you have what you need to carry out your objectives? And that's the role that the President plays, and then he relies on the military commanders because they're the ones in the best position to make those decisions about what resources are needed.
Q Well, why was it a trick question?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?
Q Why was it a trick question?
MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, because it's the military leaders who make those decisions. And that's why.
Q He's Commander-in-Chief.
Q Scott, on Medicare, the President has talked a lot about the need for a Medicare bill, but he hasn't said a lot about exactly what he wants in that bill. Has he had any direct conversations with member of the conference committee about the remaining disagreements about the content of the bill?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he's had meetings with members of the conference committee. We continue -- Secretary Thompson continues to be one of our leading administration officials working to get the Medicare legislation passed this year. It's very important that we -- and you heard the President's remarks earlier -- we are on the verge of getting this passed, after a lot of -- after a lot of years of deadlock on this issue. It's a very important issue for America's seniors so that they can have prescription drug coverage, so that they can have modern medicine that other people have, so that they can have better choices and more benefits to choose from.
Q You haven't said whether the President himself has spoken to members of the conference committee about --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he had meetings here --
Q -- the specific content of the bill.
MR. McCLELLAN: He had meetings at the White House. The President has been personally involved in this issue for a long period of time. It was one of his highest priorities. That's why when he came into office, he made it one of the first things he wanted Congress to act on.
Q Okay. My second question: He continually says that seniors should have the same choices that members of Congress have about their health care. Does he mean that the Medicare bill should have the same drug coverage for seniors that members of Congress have?
MR. McCLELLAN: He means that you have the Federal Employee Health Benefit Plan that members of Congress have, that we should have something similar to where seniors have the same sort of choices and benefits that members of Congress and federal employees now have.
Q The same benefits. So then the President would not be satisfied with a plan that only gave seniors 75 percent --
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, you're putting words in my mouth with some of what you just said. I described it the way I did, and the President described it earlier today in his remarks on Medicare.
Q So seniors should have, effectively, the same drug benefits as members of Congress --
MR. McCLELLAN: He's always said that they should have the same kind of choices and benefits that members of Congress now have.
Q On prescription drugs.
MR. McCLELLAN: And that they -- well, prescription drugs is part of having coverage. It's important that we move forward this year to get this done because we have a real opportunity to finally get a modern and strengthened Medicare system in place for America's seniors. And the President will continue urging Congress to use this time that we have remaining to pass it this year.
Q Scott, can I just follow that up real quick? The President has had many conversations, perhaps, with conferees about Medicare legislation. But part of the criticism or the concern is that he hasn't staked out a position and said, here's what I want to do on this particular area or that particular area. And that is what is making it hard for them to sort of push forward and get it accomplished.
MR. McCLELLAN: The President has outlined a framework, and he's been working closely with members of Congress to get this passed. That's why we're at the point that we are right now where we're on the verge of passing Medicare legislation, for the first time since it was really enacted since 1965, when it was a different kind of health care system that we had in place. Now we have modern technology and modern medicines available, and we want to make sure that America's seniors have the access to those same medicines and drugs that members of Congress and others do now.
Q Scott, let me go at this a slightly different way. If the bill that is presented eventually to the President, does not have the same level of benefits for seniors that federal employees currently enjoy, would the President veto that bill?
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, we can go through this a number of different ways. I think I've already addressed this. I think he addressed it earlier in his remarks.
Q There's some concern that the price of a Medicare bill will go above the $400 billion the President has recommended. Is he willing to go higher than that?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I think that was what was agreed to. That's an historic increase in funding for Medicare. I think the members of Congress are working to make sure that it stays within that $400-billion level -- on top of -- that's new funding I would point out.
Q He doesn't want it to go any higher?
MR. McCLELLAN: The President believes that's a significant increase to meet our objective of passing a Medicare bill that modernizes and strengthens the system for America's seniors.
Q Scott, one of the specific proposals, compromise proposals now would raise Medicare premiums for upper-income seniors. Is that something that the President --
MR. McCLELLAN: Again -- and this question came up earlier and it's come up previously. We're working closely -- the President outlined a framework, and the President has emphasized what is important in this Medicare legislation. He's emphasized the importance of seniors being able to choose from a variety of benefits, being able to have choice -- because when you have choice, health plans will compete to get seniors to participate in their plans. And that will provide them better benefits, and it will provide them benefits at an affordable price.
We are continuing to work with Congress on the remaining issues that are out there. I don't get into the habit of negotiating from the podium. The President believes it's important to work closely with members of Congress to keep this legislation moving forward. We're making some important progress. We need to continue working with members and move this forward, and that's what we will do.
END12:57 P.M. EST
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