print-only banner
The White House Skip Main Navigation
In Focus
News by Date
Federal Facts
West Wing

 Home > News & Policies > December 2003

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
December 19, 2003

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

12:30 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: One phone call that I want to report before I get started. Secretary General Annan called the President earlier today to wish the President a happy holiday season. And the President wished the Secretary General happy holidays, too. It was a very brief conversation, and that was the purpose of the call.

And the President also looks forward this afternoon to visiting with his personal envoy on the debt restructuring of Iraq, and hearing a report back from him from the positive discussions he's had earlier in this week with European leaders, and the President of Russia, as well.

And with that, I will go straight into questions.

Q Kofi Annan didn't express any concerns about the trial of Saddam Hussein or about the death penalty or -- he didn't raise any of those --

MR. McCLELLAN: It was less than four minutes, the entire conversation. It was just to send his holiday greetings.

Q Scott, have you heard anything about these reports of a possibility of some kind of threat against New York City?

MR. McCLELLAN: I've seen the report. We are looking into it to try to gather more information. That's where it stands at this point.

Q Do you have any information as to whether it's credible, or whether it's just part of the buzz that we hear about --

MR. McCLELLAN: Like I said, I've seen the one news report of that; I'm not in a position to confirm anything about it. We'll just say that we have remained concerned about the volume of reporting of threats and that is why the Department of Homeland Security has sent out several bulletins over the past few weeks to homeland security officials and law enforcement personnel, urging all to continue to be on a heightened state of alert, especially as we enter the busy holiday season. That's where things stand.

Q Scott, on the same subject, many people are saying that it's inevitable that something would happen, because we're still such an open society. What do you say to those things?

MR. McCLELLAN: What do I say? I'd say that the reason the President of the United States acted decisively to lead a broad coalition into a war against terrorism is to make sure that we do everything we can to prevent something like September 11th from ever happening again. And we are making a lot of important progress in the war on terrorism, but that war continues and this President will see it through and continue to take decisive action by taking the fight to the enemy. That's the best way to win the war on terrorism, is to stop them before they can carry out an attack in the first place.

And at the same time, we have also taken extraordinary steps at home to strengthen our homeland security, starting with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.

Q People are still saying, critics are still saying in particular that monies have not trickled down the way they should for first responders, those who have --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that that's -- if you look at the facts, that those assertions are just unfounded. We have provided tremendous resources to first responders.

Q Do you know anything about a suspicious package found outside the northwest gate?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, actually, I checked with Secret Service. And there's some -- just out of an abundance of caution, they took some precautionary steps because there was a white substance noticed outside the White House gates. It has been determined that it is a benign substance, and the roads that were blocked outside on Pennsylvania Avenue are being reopened.

Q What was it?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't have that report. But it was determined it was a benign substance.

Q Scott, what does the President want to hear from Secretary of State Baker today? And does he feel that the initial pronouncements from the capitals, from especially Paris, Berlin, and Moscow, were what he expected when Baker's mission took him there?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think, as I have said, that the fact that all recognize the importance of substantially reducing Iraq's debt burden is a welcome sign. The Secretary has had very good and productive meetings with leaders in those countries you just mentioned. There still remains much to be done, but we're off to a good start. And the Secretary will continue visiting other capitals in the coming weeks. So the President looks forward to hearing back from him in person about these meetings, and about the next steps that he will be taking.

Q Is the next area that the Secretary will turn his attention to perhaps the Arab debt that Saddam Hussein's regime ran up, which constitutes, as I understand, the bulk of it?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we will keep you posted on his schedule. I don't have any announcements to make today on his coming schedule. But we, as we have been, will keep you posted on his activities and keep you posted on those meetings, as we are ready to announce those meetings. But, yes, that also is an important priority to talk -- and that's one of the reasons that the President of the United States asked Secretary Baker to be his personal envoy on this issue. He certainly has a lot of unique qualifications and has worked with many leaders in that region previously.

Q Scott, did the Secretary offer any of these leaders any enticements, any inducements for their cooperation in reducing Iraq's debt?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, in terms of specific amounts that they're talking about, that's going to -- as we said, we're going to have future discussions about that, there will be a future agreement on what constitutes substantial debt reduction for Iraq. But as President Chirac and Chancellor Schroeder, Prime Minister Berlusconi and Prime Minister Blair said, it's very important that we work to seek substantial debt reduction in the Paris Club in 2004. And President Putin also made some very welcoming comments to work with us in that regard.

Q Wasn't some of the groundwork laid for us already, before the Secretary's visit? In other words, what I'm trying to ask is did Secretary Baker bring --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the groundwork laying was that the President called these leaders up and said, please welcome my personal envoy, he will be coming to your capitals and I hope that you will visit with him.

Q -- any of this beforehand?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?

Q The Iraqis, themselves, didn't make any overtures beforehand?

MR. McCLELLAN: You can talk to the Iraqis about the discussions that they've had. This is all about helping the Iraqi people. And Secretary Baker also visited with the finance minister of Iraq and the governor of the central bank prior to any of these meetings.

Q Has the capture of Saddam Hussein changed the dynamic, at all, between the President and some of these world leaders? There's a school of thought out there that maybe some of the leaders want to get on what might be seen as the winning side. Does the President sense that at all?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think we have always said that we all share the same goal, and that is helping to build a free and prosperous and democratic future for the Iraqi people. This is about helping the Iraqi people realize a brighter future. Regardless of where you stood prior to the action we took to enforce Security Council Resolution 1441, we can all agree on the need to help the Iraqi people realize a better and brighter future, and work together in that regard. And we welcome all the contributions that are being made across the world to help the Iraqi people in that regard.

Q Does the President or the White House think the capture of Saddam Hussein has given its efforts more impetus, accelerated the moves of some countries to the American position?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, if it does, I think that's great. But there are still difficulties that remain. We're making great progress, there are still difficulties that remain as we move forward. It certainly -- the way we looked at it was that this is great news for the Iraqi people, that they will know that the blanket of fear and intimidation that Saddam Hussein had over that country is being lifted, and that he is no longer going to be in power. He will no longer return to power, and that they have a better and brighter future ahead of them.

Q So what's the deal? What kind of a deal did Baker make with them?

MR. McCLELLAN: We've already talked about this.

Q No, you haven't. I mean, you haven't really said --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, yes, we have.

Q -- what he offered them to make that so agreeable.

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, what constitutes substantial debt reduction is going to be worked out in future agreements. We're pleased that they committed to this. Secretary Baker's focus is on restructuring and reducing Iraq's debt. And we're making some good progress there, but there's much that remains to be done. And as we move forward, we will continue to keep you posted on developments. But I think that we have read out where things stand at this point.

Q My question is, what was offered to the Europeans to make them --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think you've heard from the Europeans, themselves -- you can hear it from them directly. What was offered to them was that this will help the Iraqi people build a better and brighter future, a free and prosperous future, and that a peaceful, free, and prosperous Iraq is important not only for the region, but for the world, in building a safer and better world.

Q So you're suggesting that this was entirely altruistic on the part of these other nations?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think we've read out these meetings, and I would leave them where they are at this point. Secretary Baker will be coming back to the President and reporting. And if you want to read certain things into it, you're welcome to do that. But I wouldn't do that.

Q You could have him report to us.

Q Would you expect that whatever kind of debt restructuring or debt forgiveness takes place would have any budgetary implications for the U.S.? In other words, are American taxpayers ultimately going to pay for part of this?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know the answer to that question. You might want to direct those questions to the Treasury Department. I just haven't looked into that.

Q And on a different subject, when was the President informed about the attack on Bremer?

MR. McCLELLAN: He was informed following the news reports.

Q So only in the last couple hours?

MR. McCLELLAN: Following the news reports -- first news report was last night, that I'm aware of, on one of the network stations.

Q Scott, the Bush administration has --

MR. McCLELLAN: And since you brought that up, because we had this discussion earlier, I would just point out what I told you earlier, and that is that the White House policy has always been to leave operational matters in Iraq, particularly related to security and our military, to the Pentagon and Coalition Provisional Authority because they're the ones leading our efforts in Iraq. And that's been approach. They're the ones in the best position to answer questions and keep you apprised of developments and the facts surrounding those developments. And you heard from them earlier, I hope some of you had a chance to go back and look at a transcript from that meeting, because I think they pretty much fully addressed this issue.

Q Scott, why wasn't the President told when this happened?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think that, as I said, I became aware of it previously, too, yesterday afternoon, when I heard that there was going to be a news report to this effect. But a few of the staff also previously became aware of the matter just recently, and that's where it was. And then you had the news reports and the President was informed about that. But based on the circumstances of this incident, I believe there was not a sense that there was a need to inform him.

Q Because this sort of thing happens quite often over there? Convoys come under fire occasionally?

MR. McCLELLAN: Did you read the transcript from earlier, from the Coalition Provisional Authority? I mean, I think they went into detail about how there is an ongoing investigation right now into this incident, and that in the interest of maintaining operational security they were waiting to release further details -- because there's an ongoing investigation.

Q That might be why the White House wouldn't be specifically informed every time there were shots fired, because it happens occasionally.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, go ahead, Les.

Q Scott, the Bush administration has reportedly withheld $300 million from the loan guarantees provided to Israel because of Israel's continued building of the wall to stop terrorists. And my question -- the first of two -- will there be any similar financial punishment of the Palestinian Authority, which, under the road map, is supposed to disarm terrorist groups, but have never done so?

MR. McCLELLAN: Les, I know you come up with some interesting ways of looking at things, but the way we're looking at it is, in terms of the vision that the President outlined in this Rose Garden, June 24, 2002, and the best way to achieve the two state vision of Israel and Palestinian living side-by-side in peace and security, which is the President's vision, is through the road map. And we're continuing to work with the parties to move forward on the road map to get to that vision. That's where things stand right now. I think we've addressed this issue previously, in terms of the fence.

Q What is the President's reaction to the permitting of John Hinckley to make unsupervised visits to his parents? And does he believe Michael and Nancy Reagan are wrong in their strongly protesting --

MR. McCLELLAN: In a rare briefing appearance yesterday, I believe Mark Knoller asked me that question and I answered it then. We'll move on to the next question.

Q A dig at Knoller?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I welcome him out here, I know he's listening to us right now. (Laughter.)

Q He's back there.

Q Back there in his spider hole. (Laughter.)

MR. McCLELLAN: I didn't say that, Mark. (Laughter.)

Q First of all, thank you to President and First Lady last night for the great dinner party here. And, second, my question is that regional -- South Asian regional conference is going to take place in Islamabad, Pakistan on January 4th -- I might be attending that. In a recent statement, General Musharraf is showing little leniency as far as (inaudible) of Kashmir (inaudible). If President is aware of this regional meeting, and also what stand is President taking on --

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, we are. And obviously we have always said that we welcome any steps that help reduce tension in the region, and we continue to stay in touch with the parties. It's important for the parties to continue to have a close dialogue on this issue as they move forward. So we welcome efforts that reduce tensions and help move the dialogue forward.

Q -- is that as General Musharraf to (inaudible) democracy and also against the war on terrorism and at the same time, Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda is also against him. they are trying also to assassinate him. So what role U.S. is playing now, as far as to keep him in power or to --

MR. McCLELLAN: He's someone that is working closely with us and cooperatively with us on the war on terrorism, and that's something we share and we're working together on.

Q The Russian statement after Secretary Baker's meeting with President Putin was significantly less forthcoming than your statement now. It simply said that the Russians have agreed to take part in negotiations --

MR. McCLELLAN: That's right.

Q -- on the question of Iraqi debt. There was no --

MR. McCLELLAN: We welcome the statement from the Russians. It was a good meeting.

Q Right, but there was no commitment that they would agree to the principle of reducing Iraqi debt or to the outcome of any negotiations. Are you saying that Secretary Baker received a --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think some of the media expectations were a lot lower than that.

Q Be that as it may, did the Secretary --

MR. McCLELLAN: It was a good meeting. It was a good meeting.

Q I have no doubt. Did Secretary Baker get somewhat more forthcoming response in person from Russian officials that they did agree in principle to reduce Iraq's debt, although the details remain to be worked out?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I'll leave it to the way President Putin described it, in terms of the Russians. I don't speak for the Russians. I described it the way we looked at it yesterday.

Q Scott, I understand President Bush placed some calls to Latin American leaders, the President and the --

MR. McCLELLAN: That's right. I read those out earlier, both to President Fox and President Uribe. Both leaders congratulated President Bush on our military's and intelligence community's capture of Saddam Hussein. And then they discussed some bilateral issues, as well, and other issues.

Q Did Kofi Annan offer congratulations for that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, the call, I think, was really on the holiday season. I think Secretary General Annan has already commented that it was a brief call. I don't think there was really a discussion beyond kind of the holiday discussion.

Q Scott, tomorrow the unemployment benefits run out, the federal unemployment benefit programs. I know you've talked about this earlier in the week, but I'm still not clear. Does the President oppose or favor the extension of this program when Congress returns?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, let me try to make it clear again, I guess. First of all, we have previously extended these unemployment benefits three times. And I think one time it was done retroactively. We worked with Congress on all those efforts. We will continue to work with Congress. But what's most important for America's families and America's workers is that they have paychecks and jobs, as I've said before. And the economy is continuing to grow, and continuing to strengthen. There are a number of positive indicators that we've seen in the last week that shows it's moving in the right direction, that shows unemployment is moving in the right direction, as well, that the job environment is growing more robust. There are more steps that we need to take.

So the President's focus, first and foremost, is on creating as robust an environment as possible for job creation. But on this specific issue that you mentioned, obviously, we'll continue to work with Congress on that issue.

Q I'm just saying it sounds like he doesn't think that there's any need to further extend this program.

MR. McCLELLAN: What I'm saying is that what's most important for workers and families and people that are seeking employment is that they have an opportunity to work. And the President has taken decisive action to move us in the right direction. There's more that we can do. That's why he outlined a six-point plan, because the President is not satisfied because there are still people who are looking for work that cannot find a job. And that's why we're continuing to focus on those efforts, and on this issue. We've done so three times previously. We'll continue to work with Congress.

Q The extension of the program is not part of the President's plan?

MR. McCLELLAN: I said, we'll continue to work with Congress on that matter.

Q Can I just to follow on that. Does the President agree with the members of his party in Congress who feel that the extension of UI is not necessary because the economy is starting to turn around?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm speaking for the President, the way he views it. And I think I've described it today, as well as the past --

Q You just said he wants to work with Congress --

MR. McCLELLAN: -- as well as the past couple of days. No, he wants -- what he wants to do is create as robust an environment for job creation as possible. And that's why Congress should move forward on some of the six-point plan that he has outlined. That's why Congress should make the tax cuts permanent, to give people more certainty that they're going to have that money in the future coming into them. Because after all, it is their money. It's not the government's money. So there's a lot of steps that we can take.

Paula, go ahead.

Q If I could follow up.

MR. McCLELLAN: Sure, I knew you would.

Q Last year, in the same situation when unemployment benefits were due to expire December 28th, the President in a radio address in mid-December appealed to Congress to make extension of unemployment benefits a first priority when they got back. Why isn't he -- or is he planning to do this tomorrow in his radio address?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, as we were talking during that period, too, we were working with Congress. We're going to continue working with Congress during this period. I would point that the economy has gained a lot of momentum since that period, as well, and that new jobs are being created -- more than 325,000 over the last few months. And that's important. We're getting people who are looking for work, jobs. But there are still a lot -- too many people that are looking for work that cannot find a job. And as long as there's one that is, the President is not going to be satisfied, and he's going to continue acting to strengthen our economy even more.

Q And on average, 90,000 jobless workers will not have benefits beginning tomorrow if this is not extended.

MR. McCLELLAN: And I think I've addressed the matter.

Q Now that France, Germany, and Russia have gotten behind the idea of reducing the Iraqi debt, is it reasonable to think that they're going to respond to the President's leadership and get involved in the security side of Iraq's stabilization?

MR. McCLELLAN: We'll continue to talk with those countries if -- and as I've repeatedly said, we welcome even broader participation in Iraq. There is significant participation from countries around the world right now in Iraq. And we're always looking to build upon that because of the common goal that I talked about earlier that we all share, and that's helping the Iraqi people, and what it means for the world. And so we will continue to welcome any contributions that countries want to make and including joining in the coalition efforts in Iraq and the efforts of the Iraqi people to build a free and peaceful and prosperous future.

Q Is that any part of Secretary Baker's mission, is to --

MR. McCLELLAN: Secretary Baker's mission is focusing on the restructuring and reducing of Iraq's debt burden. That's his mission that we spelled out when we announced Secretary Baker. That's the focus of his mission. There are others that are focused on other parts of this. And, certainly, the Coalition Provisional Authority is focused on the reconstruction efforts inside Iraq and strengthening the Iraqi economy.

Q Scott, thank you. Also on Iraq, where does the world go from here on the trial situation? If Iraq says they want the trial, they want it sooner rather than later, and a world court also wants it, can Iraq tell the world court --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that the President made his view clear earlier this week. I made -- reiterated that for him, as well. And that's where it stands. We're continuing to have those discussions, and we'll continue to have those discussions with the Iraqis.

Q One more on Israel. Any further plans for meetings with Israelis officials in the wake of Sharon's speech yesterday?

MR. McCLELLAN: We always are in constant contact with the Israelis and the Palestinians, and we will remain so. But there's no update in terms of any meetings to announce at this point.

Sara, go ahead.

Q Thank you. Scott, former FBI Chief Louis Freeh says there is overwhelming evidence that Iran was behind the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, a bombing that killed 12 Americans. Does the President plan to do anything about this?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President is doing things about terrorist attacks. That's what we're doing in the war on terrorism. I don't have any update on specifically what he said, I guess, in testimony. But that's what the President is doing.

Go ahead in the back.

Q Have you heard the report that the Japanese government is purchasing missile defense systems from the United States? How big is the deal in dollar terms?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think that the President has talked about how that is an important priority for not only defending America, but our friends and allies. And so that's something we've been working on with others, as well. We continue to move forward on that.

Go ahead, Ellen.

Q Given the 9th Circuit Court decision yesterday on Guantanamo and also, given that you have -- there have been some people in Guantanamo who have been allowed to access attorneys, what are the plans to allow more, or all, of the detainees in Guantanamo to get help from an attorney?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, well, one, keep in mind that what we're talking are enemy combatants, people that were involved in plotting and planning attacks against the United States of America, or American citizens abroad. And that's why they have been designated as enemy combatants. We are at war on terrorism, and this is a longstanding authority that the President of the United States has had in order to carry out his most solemn obligation, which is to protect the American people. And the President of the United States will continue to do what it takes to protect the American people in a way that upholds and respects our Constitution as we move forward.

Q Thank you.

MR. McCLELLAN: Thank you.

END 12:50 P.M. EST