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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
December 11, 2003

Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
The James S. Brady Briefing Room

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12:45 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me read out a couple of world leader calls from earlier today. The President made a farewell call to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien this morning. The President called to congratulate Prime Minister Chretien on his long years of service to the Canadian people. The President also thanked the Prime Minister for being a friend of the United States during his tenure as Prime Minister and for Canadian contributions in the war on terrorism.

Q Did he mention the contract?

MR. McCLELLAN: The second call this morning, the President spoke to Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi about the need to restructure and reduce Iraq's crushing debt burden. And the President also, as he did yesterday in his phone calls, asked the Prime Minister to receive his personal envoy on this issue, Secretary of State -- former Secretary of State James Baker, to discuss the issue.

And with that, I'll be glad to go into questions.

Q Does the deputy --

MR. McCLELLAN: Why are you always first? This is like a week of John Roberts gets to go first every day.

Q I'm kind of hard wired that way. Does the Deputy Secretary of Defense still enjoy the confidence of the President?

MR. McCLELLAN: Absolutely. He's doing an outstanding job to help make the world a safer and better place.

Q The President is in no way upset about the timing of the release of this memo?

MR. McCLELLAN: About the release of a decision that had gone through an interagency process, had been thoroughly reviewed by all the appropriate agencies, and had the full support of the President of the United States?

Q I guess the answer is, yes. Is he upset about the timing of the release of the memo?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think we discussed this earlier, discussed this a little bit yesterday, the reason why we came to the decision that we did. And this is really a part of supporting and honoring United States forces, coalition forces, and the Iraqi people who have been risking their lives and making sacrifices to build a free and peaceful future for the Iraqi people.

Q And does he believe that the timing of the release of the memo will throw a monkey wrench into James Baker's efforts to try to restructure and relieve Iraq's debt?

MR. McCLELLAN: And that's something -- obviously you heard from the President earlier on that very issue. The restructuring of debt and reduction of debt for the Iraqi people is an important priority that all nations should look at carefully. The Iraqi people should not be saddled with the debt of a brutal regime that was more interested in helping itself by building palaces and building weapons programs and so forth than helping the Iraqi people have a better future.

Q Sorry to bring you back on point here, but does it make Mr. Baker's job more difficult?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, those -- Secretary Baker will be beginning initial fact-finding mission to discuss these issues with heads of state. And he looks forward to talking about this issue with the heads of states. We appreciate all the contributions that countries around the world are making to help the Iraqi people. These stakes are very high in Iraq, and we all have a responsibility to do what we can to help. And one way that people can contribute is by helping reduce or restructure the debt burden that the Iraqi people have because of the former regime. And so we look forward to those discussions and that's where it is right now.

Q I gather the contract issue came up in the call to Chretien because Chretien told reporters that the President said to him that it basically wasn't appropriate that Canada was mentioned as among those countries who would be off the contract list and that he told Chretien not to worry about that. Is that accurate?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President was very up front, as he was with the other leaders, in saying that lines of communication would be open on these issues. We, as I said yesterday, we welcome discussing this decision with other countries. And we will be glad to do that. And so I --

Q What are you saying here, because this is --

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me finish. I think that, and I said this yesterday, as well, that we'll be glad to talk with Canadian officials about this decision. We do very much appreciate the contributions that they have made, both in Afghanistan and to Iraq, and we'll be glad to discuss those issues with them.

Q So Canada shouldn't worry?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?

Q Canada shouldn't worry about being left out.

MR. McCLELLAN: I said we'll be glad to discuss those issues with them and discuss that --

Q Well, I don't -- this is just not clear for the American people, Scott, I'm sorry.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- and discuss the decision with them. The President of the United States called to express his gratitude for the friendship that Chretien exhibited.

Q You want to be about a policy, let's be clear. The President, in the Oval -- in the Cabinet Room today as saying, if you supported the war, you put boots on the ground, then you get contracts. That's what taxpayers expect. That's clear.

MR. McCLELLAN: Right.

Q So are you saying that that's just a bargaining position, that if the lines of communication are open, if they agree to -- I mean, is there a quid pro quo here that if they forgive debt, then they'll be back on the good grace list?

MR. McCLELLAN: Remember what I said earlier, that if other countries want to participate in the coalition efforts and the efforts of the Iraqi people going on right now in Iraq, then circumstances can change. I was very clear about that. And we'll be glad to discuss this decision with other countries.

Certainly the reason for the decision was focused on the sacrifices and the contributions that will be made -- that were being made by coalition partners, that will be made -- that were being made by countries that were contributing forces on the ground, and the contributions and the sacrifices being made by the Iraqi people. That's why that decision was made. And this is U.S. taxpayer dollars.

Q Why shouldn't the American people view this as a bargaining position by the United States?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, it was very clearly in the memo, Secretary Wolfowitz -- Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz spelled out in the memo that we want to continue to expand the number of countries that are participating in Iraq. And we will continue reaching out to countries and asking for them to participate. And I made very clear yesterday that circumstances can change if countries want to participate in the efforts that are ongoing in Iraq because it's important to the world.

Q But why won't you be clear, that this is a bargaining position? You're saying to these other countries that if you want to play, you've got to pay. You've got to forgive the debt, and then you can -- then you can get a piece of the action. Isn't that what you're saying?

MR. McCLELLAN: Actually, what I'm saying is that countries can participate in a number of ways, and companies from those countries can already participate in Iraq, even if they're not eligible for the U.S. taxpayer dollars. Remember, we're talking about U.S. taxpayer dollars, but there are a number of companies already participating in Iraq through subcontracts and other means. They can participate through the international funding. They can participate as subcontractors to those companies that receive the prime contracts.

But we're talking about U.S. taxpayer dollars. And the President was very clear earlier, talking about how it was our men and women in the military who made sacrifices; it was the Iraqi people who made sacrifices; and it was coalition partners who made sacrifices; and that it's perfectly appropriate for the U.S. taxpayer dollars to be going to those countries for the prime contracts.

Q Also feel that he'll bend that position if they agree to help.

MR. McCLELLAN: And I think the American people understand that because they've been asked to make a significant contribution to our efforts.

Q Aren't you saying, Scott, that he will bend that position if these countries -- France, Germany, Russia, and others, agree to forgive debt?

MR. McCLELLAN: One, I'm not discussing this issue with other countries from this podium. I'm saying that we welcome the opportunity to discuss this decision with other countries, that if other countries want to participate in the ongoing efforts, then circumstances can change. That's what I'm saying.

Q Canada is not eligible for -- to bid on these contracts since they did not put its troops at risk in Iraq? Is that correct?

MR. McCLELLAN: If you look -- I would refer you back to the memo that was publicly posted by the Pentagon and that had been discussed prior to that by Pentagon officials at two trade fairs. The memo makes clear who is eligible for those prime contracts, and it lists the countries, some 63 nations, in a -- that includes coalition partners, it includes the United States, it includes Iraq, and it includes countries that have contributed forces on the ground in Iraq. That's what it includes.

Q But not Canada?

MR. McCLELLAN: They are not on that list.

Q Scott, I think what may be confusing is how the list is developed, because yesterday the Pentagon had a briefing to clarify that if you were either publicly supportive in word of the mission in Iraq, or militarily supporting it with troops, you could be on that list. But not everybody on that list has troops.

MR. McCLELLAN: That's why I said coalition partners and countries contributing forces.

Q But today, the President, just now in the Cabinet Room said two or three times, if you put lives at risk, if you have troops involved, you will be on that list, you will be rewarded with contracts. So the President seemed to be more narrowly defining how you can be on that list.

MR. McCLELLAN: I didn't really read that much into it. The list was publicly posted; it was an interagency review process that it went through. The decision was made, and I made it very clear who is included on that list. The list is a public document.

Q The President didn't mean to suggest that you must have troops involved in Iraq in order to have access to contracts?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President -- this decision was very clear, and you're reading a lot more into those comments than I would.

Q The President did say -- quote -- "It's very simple. Our people risk their lives. Coalition friendly folks risk their lives. And therefore, the contracting is going to reflect that."

MR. McCLELLAN: It does reflect that. It's a nice way to -- it's also a nice way to honor the sacrifices and contributions --

Q It also includes a number of countries that did not risk lives.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- and the contributions that are being made by coalition forces, and that are being made by the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people -- Iraqi companies are eligible for these contracts. They've been very involved and they're already receiving contracts to do more and more of the reconstruction work.

Q The list of countries eligible for primary contracts also includes a number of countries that did not risk lives in Iraq.

MR. McCLELLAN: They were part of the effort from the beginning. There were a variety of ways that people could signal their support or help in our efforts in Iraq.

Q How do you define "from the beginning"? Because you keep repeating that. I mean, Canada is an example that actually lost troops in Afghanistan, contributed money in Iraq --

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm referring to Iraq. I'm referring to the decision to enforce a Security Council resolution that called for serious consequences if Saddam Hussein continued to defy the international community and not comply with his international obligations.

Q So that's not broken down in terms of financial contributions, troops? It's just a position --

MR. McCLELLAN: The list is very public and it spells out who, in the memo, is eligible.

Q Scott, is Secretary Baker going to seek specific debt relief commitments on his trip next week?

MR. McCLELLAN: His -- and when we announced that he would be the President's personal envoy, we spelled out that he would be seeking to restructure and reduce the debt burden for the Iraqi people. He has not even had any meetings at this point. We need to let the meetings occur first, and then we can talk more about that at that point. But he will be --

Q He won't be seeking --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, no, his effort is specifically seeking to restructure and reduce Iraq's debt burden. That's what his mission is and that's what his focus is.

Q On the same subject about this Iraqi contracting, this international fund for -- the separate international fund that nations can go through to get this $13 billion to get some of these contracts, how much does the White House or the U.S. government weigh in on that one? Because it seems like it's all about the military and military action, and that fund is just out in the wind now.

MR. McCLELLAN: What fund is just out in the wind?

Q There's a separate international fund, $13 billion --

MR. McCLELLAN: Right. The Madrid Donors Conference.

Q Right, that nations could -- how much --

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not as much an expert on how that is set up. But international-- you've got international organizations involved there.

Q Does the White House have any pull in how that money is disbursed and to who -- to what countries it's disbursed to?

MR. McCLELLAN: That's not -- that coalition -- or that money for the efforts in Iraq -- as I said, I'm not an expert on how that is set up, but you need to look to the international organizations that would be involved in distributing that for those questions.

Q But does the United States have any weight in saying who --

MR. McCLELLAN: The United States has a say in how U.S. taxpayer dollars are spent.

Q I understand that. I'm not talking about this separate --

MR. McCLELLAN: You're talking about international -- I know. Our fund and what our focus that we're discussing about on this decision was related to the wartime supplemental and the $18.6 billion under that that was specifically set aside for reconstruction costs to help the Iraqi people build a better and more prosperous future.

Q All right, maybe I need to rephrase this.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I think you need to look at what the -- who defines that and who has more -- who has say over that funding, international funding.

Q The point is, is that these nations who have not given militarily or who have not supported --

Q (Inaudible.)

MR. McCLELLAN: Okay, quit the conversation up here.

Q These nations who have not given militarily, who have not supported, have another route to go to get this --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, yes, you've got $13 billion, and so they are eligible for that funding. In fact, any country around the world is eligible -- or companies from -- for that international funding, as long as they're not on any state sponsor of terror list.

Q Right. But what, if there is any, influence does the Bush administration have on what nations can get that money? This is what I'm trying to find out.

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, and I said that, look at how that is set up and how that's defined. I think you're trying to pull me in a direction that --

Q No, I'm just asking for a straight answer.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- you need to direct to other entities that have authority over that money.

Q Scott, you keep saying that circumstances could change if countries participate. If I could just try with a yes or no question. Is writing off debt considered participating?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, this question has been asked and it's been answered. And I --

Q No, it hasn't --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I'm sorry, it has been answered. I mean, it may not be the way you want it answered, but -- (laughter) -- it has been answered.

Q Is it a yes or a no?

MR. McCLELLAN: That is a high priority. I said if countries want to join in the efforts going on in Iraq, the coalition efforts and the efforts by the Iraqi people, we look forward to discussing ways that they can do that --

Q -- money in?

MR. McCLELLAN: -- and circumstances can change, as I said, related to that. But you're asking me to speculate about things from this podium. We will have discussions with countries if they want to discuss this decision or if they want to discuss matters relating to the restructuring of the debt.

Q Scott, the President said today, restructuring debt or forgiving debt would be one way to contribute to the effort in Iraq.

MR. McCLELLAN: Right. There are a lot of ways to contribute. People are contributing through the international fund, as well. And we're grateful for all those contributions.

Q But my question is, does that --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, keep in mind, that this $18.6 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars that was passed by Congress, the Pentagon is already moving forward on that process. And we are looking to move as quickly as possible to award contracts to carry out the projects that need to be carried out for the Iraqi people. And so we'll be moving rather quickly on that funding for reconstruction.

Q I think what we're saying here, what we're trying to find out, we're trying to ask, in saying debt forgiveness is one way to contribute, was the President not opening the door to that as a way of getting in on the contracts?

MR. McCLELLAN: What the President was saying is that he is grateful for the contributions the countries are making. And he would be grateful for contributions that they would make to the restructuring of Iraq's debt. You're asking me to get in discussions with countries from this podium, and that's not what I'm going to do.

Q Let me ask just one -- is there any other way we should interpret that? Is there a reason we should not interpret that as opening the door to --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think you should look at it as the way it was said, and you've heard my comments -- what I said yesterday and what I've said here today from this podium about this decision and about -- and what I've said about whether or not countries want to join in those efforts.

Q Can I go to another subject?

MR. McCLELLAN: All right, I'll come to you next Jacobo.

Q Another subject. Do you have any comments about this visa frauds that have been going on for some time -- and I asked the same question at the State Department the other day -- like at the U.S. embassies and consulate in India and also in Sri Lanka, and several people, including Americans working there were arrested. And victims were charged in India as much as $20,000 to come to the U.S. And now here, this week, the India Globe is getting a report in New Jersey, at the Newark International Airport, an INS inspector, immigration inspector was taking $5,000 for each person to enter the U.S. for a business or work visa, and $7,000 for a green card or immigrant visa.

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, I think this issue did come up at the State Department yesterday, and I think that they addressed it. So you want to probably direct that question there. That would a better position to --

Q What can --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, they'll be in a better position to address that issue, Goyal.

Q My second question, just on a domestic level, you think this "do not call" policy is working? Because now these people are putting recording on you when you are doing work or eating, and now you cannot tell anybody --

MR. McCLELLAN: They're recording me?

Q They're putting recording on your phone. Now, get -- they don't call in person, but they put the recording on my --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, no, that -- it would apply to that, as well.

Q You cannot even tell them, do not call.

MR. McCLELLAN: It would apply to that, as well. Yes, we think that that's a great thing for -- that the "do not call" list is great for consumers to have. I'm trying to work to add media to that list so I don't get the calls at home myself. (Laughter.)

Q Excuse me. Scott, you said yesterday -- you said yesterday that the -- the 63 nations on the list would get primary contracts.

MR. McCLELLAN: That's right.

Q But you stated that they can subcontract to any country that they want to have along.

MR. McCLELLAN: That's correct.

Q Including France, Germany, Russia, et cetera.

MR. McCLELLAN: Right.

Q Is there a percentage limit on the subcontracting if it happens to be, for example, one of those countries that are not? Is there a limit on the number of --

MR. McCLELLAN: Not that I'm aware of, but I'm not a procurement expert. Those might be better directed at the Pentagon who is overseeing that contracting. Go ahead, Tom.

Q Scott, Tom Ridge yesterday at a town hall meeting in Miami said the government ought to, in some way, give legal status to the 8 to 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. Was the White House aware of these comments, and is this a new administration policy?

MR. McCLELLAN: One, no. I think there are some that had interpreted this as some broad amnesty discussion, and that's not at all what he was suggesting. He's very involved in, obviously, overseeing border security and immigration matters now under the new Department of Homeland Security. And I think he's been looking at the issue of the large number of illegal immigrants we do have in the country, and looking at those that could be threats and those that are here for other reasons. And so he's just talking about the realities that we are facing now.

The President has always been a strong believer that America should be a welcoming society. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants, as he often points out. And in that context, obviously we had a review going on and we had discussions going on with Mexico to bring about a more orderly, more safe and more humane migration policy. September 11th obviously occurred, we had some priorities that had to be addressed -- from border security to the immigration infrastructure. We've taken steps to improve border security, significant steps, I might add, and have made great progress there. And we've taken steps to improve the immigration infrastructure. Those are some foundation for moving forward on a more orderly, safe and humane migration policy. This is a matter that really is under review at this point. We continue to look at it; there are some proposals that have been put forth by members of Congress; Secretary Ridge is very involved in this effort, obviously.

Q About the Chretien call, could you clarify something? You said again from the podium today that Canada is not on the list. Yet, Chretien in Ottawa today said that the President assured him, said, in fact, that the media got it wrong and that Canada would not be excluded from contracts. Which contracts was the President referring to?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, I said that the purpose of the President's call was to wish him well as he leaves office. That was the purpose of the call. The President obviously did discuss the topic you bring up with him, and like he said to other leaders, "There will be open lines of communication on this, we'll be glad to discuss these issues with you." And that's where it was left.

Q Can I also ask you --

MR. McCLELLAN: Because the main purpose of the call was not that topic.

Q Does the President agree with the view expressed in the Wolfowitz memo, that Canadian companies do pose some sort of security risk to U.S. interests?

MR. McCLELLAN: I've read that memo and I saw nothing like that in the memo.

Q Congress left town without extending unemployment benefits, which are due to expire December 21st. Does the administration believe that the Congress should make that a first order of business when they return?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, the President worked closely with Congress to extend unemployment benefits on three previous occasions. And the President has made it very clear that as long as there are people looking for work who cannot find a job, there is more that we need to do. He is not satisfied.

And the most important thing that we can do for workers and families and those who are seeking employment, is to continue working to move our economy in the right direction. It is moving in the right direction. There are a lot of positive indicators showing that the economy is moving in the right direction and showing that new jobs are being created. But there is more to do, and that's why the President has a six-point plan to create an even more robust environment for job creation.

So that's what's most important, but we'll continue working with Congress on that issue, as well.

Q -- know that the more to do at the moment does not include extending --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the most important thing for America -- America's workers and families, is that they want paychecks and jobs. And we have made important progress in there -- progress to get there. Jobs are being created. There is more that we need to do to create an even more robust environment. That's where the President's focus is. We did extend unemployment benefits three times previously. We'll continue to work with Congress on that issue. But I would point out the economy is strengthening, it continues to grow and we'll continue to work with Congress to act to create an even more robust environment for job creation.

Q Why can't you say whether or not you support just an additional extension in the meantime?

MR. McCLELLAN: I said we'd work with Congress.

Q On the President's task force to determine the future status of Puerto Rico, why is no firm date set for his findings? And why is it necessary to take up to two years to make a recommendation to the President, when the issues in Puerto Rico are so well known?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, this is something that is just getting underway. It was just announced, so they need to begin their work and have the discussions and listen to the wishes of the Puerto Rican people. And the President, under this directive -- I believe it's at least an annual report that needs to be made to the President of the United States -- but we've always said we wanted to look at the wishes of the Puerto Rican people, and this is an issue that has been discussed for a long time in Puerto Rico.

I might add that Puerto Rico is a wonderful place to visit, as I was just there on my honeymoon. (Laughter.)

Q Scott, what can you tell us about a Washington Post report that the CIA is helping set up an Iraqi intelligence service inside of Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, several months ago Iraqis requested our assistance in establishing an intelligence service capability, and we are assisting them with their request. The United States government is assisting in that effort.

The primary mission of that intelligence service will be to provide information to combat terrorism inside Iraq. This is all part of our larger effort to continue working with the Iraqi people to turn more and more responsibility over to the Iraqi people for security in their own country. So that's what that is. But they had requested our assistance. The United States government is assisting in that effort, at the request of the Iraqi people.

I would point out that Iraqis continue to become more and more involved in their own security, from patrolling the streets of Baghdad and other cities, to protecting critical infrastructure, and, most importantly, protecting their fellow citizens from the terrorists who want to return Iraq to the days of a very brutal regime, which will not happen.

Q Scott, Majority Leader DeLay said on December the 4th: entertaining free-lance peace plans like the Geneva Plan that morally equate to terrorism and self-defense are not only counter-productive to the peace process, but dangerous in its validation of terrorists and terrorism. No wonder Yasser Arafat likes this thing.

And my question -- first of two -- does the President believe Majority DeLay is wrong?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, the President has made it very clear what his vision is, he outlined that June 24, 2002, here in the Rose Garden, that he is working to -- and the first United States President to do so -- outline a two-state vision of Israel and Palestine living side-by-side in peace and security, and that the road map is the way to get there. We remain firmly committed to the road map. We remain firmly committed to working with the parties in the region -- Israel and Palestine and Arab nations, as well -- and that's what we are doing.

And I would point out that the foundation remains -- the foundation for moving forward remains cracking down on terrorism.

Q At the Democrat get-together in New Hampshire, and on NPR and Fox, Governor Dean has kept mentioning what he calls: the most interesting theory, that President Bush was tipped off in advance about 9/11. And Washington Post columnist Krauthammer writes: when Representative Cynthia McKinney first broached this idea before the 2002 primary election, it was considered so nutty it made her, former Representative McKinney, question. The President doesn't believe that Dr. Krauthammer, who is a psychiatrist, is wrong about this nuttiness, does he?

MR. McCLELLAN: Les, you're asking me about the Democratic primary and the politics that are going on in the Democratic primary. I don't --

Q I'm asking about Dr. Krauthammer. He's a psychiatrist.

MR. McCLELLAN: Les, I don't intend to vote in the Democrat primary. Let me make that very clear.

Q I'll run away.

MR. McCLELLAN: One more quick one.

Q On the contracts. In the Cabinet Room, the President said he hadn't consulted his lawyer yet. Should he have done that, or was that a direct signal to Chancellor Schroeder that he doesn't --

MR. McCLELLAN: I addressed this question yesterday. It was addressed by other officials, I believe U.S. -- at the United States Trade Representatives Office, and it was addressed by the Pentagon. We believe it is fully consistent with international obligations. That all was addressed during the interagency review process. And so that's --

Q Shouldn't he take it as a message to Chancellor Schroeder that he doesn't really care about international law and what he thinks about --

MR. McCLELLAN: I made it very clear that this is consistent with our international obligations.

Q Thank you.

MR. McCLELLAN: Thank you.

END 1:13 P.M. EST