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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
February 20, 2004

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

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12:33 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon. I have one announcement and then I'll be glad to go to questions. And, wow, another rare appearance here today. I'm honored.

Q I'm being punished. (Laughter.)

MR. McCLELLAN: Me, too. (Laughter.)

The President looks forward to welcoming Georgian President Saakashvili to the White House on February 25th. This visit will provide an opportunity to deepen our partnership with Georgia on the fight against terrorism, resolving regional conflict, Caspian energy and Georgia's democratic and market economic reforms. The Presidents will also explore ways to deepen cooperation with Russia, Turkey, and our other European allies in pursuit of freedom, prosperity and peace throughout the South Caucuses.

And with that, I will be glad to take your questions.

Q Scott, was the United States consulted on why Japan raised its security alert to the highest level? Do we know what's going on there?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, let me give you a little bit of an update there. Japan, for the last few weeks, has been taking some measures to improve the police preparedness as they prepare to deploy troops to Iraq. And so Japan has kept us apprised of the measures they are implementing.

Q Do we know, is there a particular threat, or is it --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I said -- as I said, they've been taking additional measures over the last few weeks, related to the deployment of troops to Iraq. And this is -- the measures that they have been implementing are related to police preparedness.

MR. McCLELLAN: Scott, a two-part question, if I may. One, it seems that the United States is back to square one about what kind of government is going to be turned over to the Iraqis on June 30th, that the caucuses are apparently dead in the water. What form of government does the President believe the U.S. is going to put in place? And secondly, Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers, talking to reporters, says that U.S. troops could be there for a long while. How long they're going to be there is not knowable, but the Pentagon has contingency plans for redeployment next year and in 2006. What's the President's view on that?

Q Well, one, the President's view on that is that we are going to stay until the job is finished. The President has made that very clear. And obviously, we're working out -- we will continue to work out specific details about security arrangements once sovereignty is transferred to a transitional government. We are continuing to have those discussions. But the President has made it very clear to leaders in Iraq that he has met with, and he's made very clear publicly that the United States is committed to making sure that we finish the job. And so those are discussions that we'll have with the Iraqi people and Iraqi leaders, moving forward.

But in terms of our troops, we want to make sure they have all the resources they need to do their job. And that's where the President's focus is. But a lot of those decisions will be discussed with military leaders, and they'll make a lot of those determinations, based on the situation in Iraq.

Now, in terms of the type of government -- and, obviously, the Iraqi people will be the ones that will be very involved in driving that process. There are a lot of ideas that are being suggested, as we move forward on the plan to transfer sovereignty by June 30th to the Iraqi people. And I'm not going to get into handicapping any of those ideas that are being suggested right now, but we are continuing to work closely with leaders in Iraq on those efforts.

Q Scott, what was the flaw in the caucus plan?

MR. McCLELLAN: Steve, look, it's always a very complicated process when you're talking about transferring sovereignty. I think everybody recognizes that. But it's an important process to continue moving forward on in a timely manner, for a number of reasons. And I think that there's wide recognition that the caucus plan is something that has not received much support. And so there are a lot of ideas being suggested and discussed, and we will continue to work with leaders in Iraq on those ideas.

Q Scott, without handicapping any of the proposals, this is the first time we've seen such a prominent, sustained role from the United Nations in the postwar effort in trying to negotiate over the political transition. Can you lay out for us, who is taking the lead right now in terms of the outside parties? Obviously, you have the Governing Council involved and religious leaders and others within Iraq. But in the outside parties, principally the United Nations and the United States? How is this working? Is the U.N. running the negotiations right now? Is the U.N. shaping --

MR. McCLELLAN: As you are aware, the United Nations sent a team into assess the feasibility of elections by the June 30th timetable for transferring sovereignty. That team returned to the United Nations and the Secretary General spoke to this just yesterday in saying -- and I think all parties, the Iraqis, United Nations, the coalition recognize the importance of continuing to move forward on that June 30th timetable for transferring sovereignty.

And so now the United Nations, at the request -- the United Nations at the request of the Iraqi Governing Council is looking at some ideas for -- that they will recommend for moving forward. And we look forward to seeing those recommendations. We've always said that the United Nations has a vital role to play. We appreciate their efforts in assessing the feasibility of elections, and we will continue to discuss ways they can continue to be involved.

Q So is it fair to say that at this point, the United States is consulting with the United Nations and offering its thoughts to the United Nations and waiting to --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think, one, you have to look at it as an Iraqi-driven process. The Iraqis are assuming more and more responsibility for their future, as we head toward that June 30th timetable for transferring sovereignty. They are already -- they have a ministry in place assuming the daily responsibilities of governing the country and overseeing different sectors of the country. And there are certainly town and city councils in place all across Iraq.

So we're moving forward on freedom and democracy in Iraq. It's all taking root. And this is -- going back to Steve's question about transferring sovereignty, democracy is not always easy, but the benefits are many. And everybody, as the President says, has a universal right to freedom. He believes very strongly in that.

Q I guess the point I'm trying to get at is, the caucus plan was viewed as a U.S. plan; yes, in consultation with others, but the U.S., as the lead outside entity, was unmistakably a U.S. plan. Will the next plan, or set of recommendations, as you just called it, will that unmistakably be a U.N. plan?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, no. Again, I think you have to look at this as something that's driven by the Iraqi people. They are assuming more and more responsibility. The United Nations was asked to look at some of these areas by the Governing Council, and they will be putting forward some recommendations soon, and we look forward to seeing those recommendations. And we'll continue to discuss this with the Iraqi people; we'll continue to discuss it with the United Nations. But we're all working toward the same goal of June 30th to transfer sovereignty back to the Iraqi people. That date is something that everybody agreed on, and everybody agrees we should meet that timetable.

Q I'm not trying to belabor the point, but then is the United States, as the -- currently the occupier of Iraq, with thousands of troops at risk in Iraq, have the right to say, to whatever recommendations the United Nations comes forward with, no?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know that I would look at it that way. I think we're all working toward the same goal, and we're all working together on this. And again, I think more and more you're seeing that this is an Iraqi-driven process.

Q This will be an Iraqi plan, Scott? This will be -- the transition plan implemented will be an Iraqi plan?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we're working on all this together. Obviously, we want to see a -- I think everybody wants to see a representative transitional government in place by the time that we transfer sovereignty back to the Iraqi people. But this is something we're all working on together, one shared goal. And it's important to keep in mind what the Iraqi people want in this process.

Q I know you say we're all working on it together, but it's clear the U.S. has stepped back and the U.N. has now taken the lead in trying to find some acceptable means of transferring sovereignty.

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know that I would necessarily describe it that way. I think I would describe it the way that I have.

Q What's the next step then? Who is the next person to reach out to the Iraqi leaders?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the United Nations will be putting out some recommendations. And we look forward to seeing those recommendations. And we look forward to discussing ideas with Iraqi leaders.

Q And does the United Nations have the support of the United States in whatever recommendations it's putting to the Iraqi people?

MR. McCLELLAN: The Iraqi people have the support of the United States in moving forward on our efforts to transfer sovereignty. I'm trying -- you're trying to describe it in ways that I am not. So I would describe it the way that I have.

Q Well, I'm not sure I quite understand the way you're describing it. You're not willing to say --

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm just pointing out the way it's working right now. We're all working together on these efforts. We all have a shared goal.

Q You're not willing to say definitively it will be an Iraqi plan.

MR. McCLELLAN: This is an Iraqi-driven process. We are working very closely with the leaders in Iraq on these efforts. They are the ones who are going to be assuming full responsibility for their future, come June 30th.

Q Scott, there is some concern, I gather, within the administration about anything that delays the process of setting up an interim government to hand over power to. Along those lines, are you concerned that Secretary General Annan may actually want, as some others like France have suggested, a new resolution that sort of puts some kind of framework for the United States to get politically involved and help set up a transitional government?

MR. McCLELLAN: Like I said the other day, that's something others have suggested, it's not something we've suggested. We're working on moving forward under the November 15th agreement. This was something that was agreed to with the Iraqi Governing Council, on that timetable to transfer sovereignty. And there are ideas being discussed about the representative transitional government that we have in place, and again, I just don't want to get into handicapping any of those ideas at this point.

Q Scott, without handicapping the ideas, the administration proposed the caucuses for a particular reason, and they were opposed by Sistani and a lot of the Shiites for a particular reason. Are you at all concerned that any of these other ways of going about this would put too much power too quickly in the hands of one group within Iraq, at the expense of other --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think that there is -- we're moving forward on the transitional law, as well. I mean, it spells out some specific rights that will be there for the Iraqi people. And that transitional law was part of the November 15th agreement as well, some specific rights that will be included in that transitional law. So that's something we're working toward in the new future. And then, several months from now, obviously, we'll be transferring sovereignty to the Iraqi people.

But, look, this is -- like I said, this is becoming more and more of an Iraqi-driven process. We're working with Iraqi leaders on this process. And there are a number of ideas being discussed. We want to see what the United Nations recommends. That was something the Governing Council requested. And we're going to continue working closely with the Iraqi leaders on this process.

Q Can I switch to another topic for just a second? Can you update on the status of the President's Global AIDS Fund?

MR. McCLELLAN: Sure. Congress, as you're aware, just a few weeks ago, recently just appropriated money for the President's emergency plan for AIDS relief. This President has made an unprecedented commitment to fighting the AIDS pandemic. And this effort focuses resources on results. There are a number of areas that are -- to say that those in the most afflicted areas who are suffering will be receiving these resources.

And I think there is going to be more to say on this effort next week. I mean, the President is going to be getting an update later today about these efforts. But it was just three weeks ago that the money was actually appropriated by Congress for these efforts. And we have been working to make sure that we have a plan in place to get that -- get those resources out the door quickly and get them to those areas, so we can begin helping those who are suffering. And this effort, if you'll recall, provides treatment to 2 million HIV-infected people; it will help prevent 7 million HIV infections; and provide care for 10 million people infected and affected by HIV-AIDS -- that would include orphans and other children who are vulnerable.

Q -- get that money out the door in place now?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, there is going to be more to say on this next week, I suspect, from our Global AIDS Coordinator, Ambassador Tobias. And the President is receiving an update on this effort later today. But in anticipation of Congress appropriating these funds, we have been putting a plan in place to get those resources out the door quickly to help those who are in need.

Q On another topic, the Mayor of Chicago has now said that he would have no objection to that city issuing marriage licences for same-sex couples. Judges in the state of California have evinced no interest in stopping what's happening in San Francisco. And there are a lot of Americans who are not just troubled, as the President has said he was by these events, but outraged by them, and they are looking for leadership, and they don't see it in the White House. There is some suspicion that the President's political advisors are telling him that this is too hot to handle. What would you say to them?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I would think that those are some wrong impressions, number one. This President has always believed that marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman. And this President is strongly committed to protecting the sanctity of marriage. He has made it very clear that he will do what is legally necessary to protect the sanctity of marriage. And he has said, if necessary, he is prepared to look to the constitutional process.

You mentioned some of the events that are unfolding. We have seen events going on in Massachusetts. We have activist judges trying to redefine marriage. We have seen events in San Francisco, and some other areas, I've noticed, have been talking about it, as well, where some are seeking to redefine marriage, as well. And the President talked just -- I guess it's two days ago, about this very issue when he was asked about it. And he talked about how those events are influencing the way he is looking at this. We've been looking at it very closely, and this President has committed to doing what is necessary to protect and defend the sanctity of marriage. It's a principled stand. The President has always felt this way and believe very strongly what is legally necessary to protect the sanctity of marriage. That's why he supported efforts like the Defense of Marriage Act.

Q If I could just follow up, many people who saw him speak out on this were dismayed by the mildness of his comments. They felt that he was not, for someone who, as you say, feel so strongly on the issue, sufficiently outraged by what they see as a spectacle and a travesty. Do you sense in him a real commitment, an outrage?

MR. McCLELLAN: It's a principled position that the President has taken. He has made it very clear that it's important to treat everybody with dignity and respect, no matter where you stand on the issue. But this is an enduring institution in America. And the President is committed to doing what is legally necessary to protect and defend the sanctity of marriage. He has called these recent events that you bring up, "troubling," and he has said that they are influencing the way he is looking at this. We've been looking at this issue very closely and taking a very deliberate look at it because he is strongly committed to protecting this sacred institution.

Q Just one more, briefly. Do you know if he wants to see the movie The Passion of the Christ?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think -- I think he does, and I think at some point, he probably will.

Q Can you clarify reports that are coming out of Afghanistan and Pakistan that Pakistani forces already have Osama bin Laden? And also in the last month, the General in Afghanistan --

MR. McCLELLAN: That would be news to everybody in this room. No, I haven't heard anything -- haven't heard anything like that.

Q Let's clarify that. What prompted the General last -- two weeks ago when he said that by the end of the year we will have Osama bin Laden and after that, the --

MR. McCLELLAN: I speak for the President. Obviously, I don't speak for President Musharraf.

Q No, no, in --

MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, okay. Okay.

Q -- in Afghanistan made a statement that by the end of the year we will have Osama bin Laden. What I'm asking you is, if we catch Osama bin laden, you think this is the end of terrorism, or -- because terrorism is still --

MR. McCLELLAN: The war on terrorism continues. And obviously, we have made significant progress in the war on terrorism. But as the President has said, this is something that is not going to be won overnight. We have already either captured or otherwise gotten rid of two-thirds of the al Qaeda leadership and we continue to pursue other members of al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden. We will find him and we will bring him to justice. The President has been very clear on that.

Q Next question -- if you have seen the report, the number of people from -- in the U.S. military here who have been arrested -- either they are Muslims or in the U.S. Army and they were giving information to the al Qaeda network. How do you think it's -- should the President --

MR. McCLELLAN: The war on terrorism is being fought on many fronts. And I think if you have specific questions about some in our military, you need to direct those questions to the Pentagon.

Q Secretary Powell made mention of a meeting tomorrow the President is having with his Middle East envoys. Can you tell us about that subject --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you had an interagency team that just recently returned from the Middle East, including some members of the White House and including Assistant Secretary Burns of the State Department, where there are meetings with Prime Minister Sharon and Israeli officials. And then I know Assistant Secretary Burns also had some meetings with Palestinian leaders. There is an ongoing dialogue with the parties to get everybody focused on moving forward on the road map.

Of course, we've continued to emphasize the importance of the Palestinian leaders taking action to crack down on terrorism and to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. That is the way forward on the road map. Obviously, Prime Minister Sharon has discussed some ideas publicly, which we have said could help reduce friction between Israelis and Palestinians. The team that went over there was there to listen to some of the ideas from the Prime Minister. And, yes, you can expect that they will be providing an update to the President this weekend.

I would say, obviously, just for your planning purposes, don't -- these are not meetings that we typically read out. If there's more to say on this subject, we will, obviously, keep you posted.

Q -- my birthday is -- I appreciate that. (Laughter.)

MR. McCLELLAN: Happy birthday. February is a good month for birthdays.

Q Since the President is, under Article II, Section III of the Constitution, required to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed," what specifically has he done with regard to more than 2,000 violations of California's marriage law by the Mayor of San Francisco? And I have a follow-up.

MR. McCLELLAN: I think we just went through this subject at length when Terry brought this question up, and I told you what we're doing.

Q -- he hasn't done it --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we're closely looking at these events.

Q Is he in touch with Governor Schwarzenegger on this issue, do you know?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know if they've had a conversation. Certainly, we're aware of what the Governor has been doing, as well.

Q When there was massive law-breaking on the campus of the University of California in Berkeley, Governor Reagan sent in the National Guard, just as the 101st Airborne was sent into Little Rock, whose schools were breaking the law. And my question: Does the President believe those actions are wrong? And if not, why hasn't he asked Governor Schwarzenegger to take action against this massive law-breaking?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think that's the way we're looking at this issue.

Rick, did you have something?

Q Actually, it was a bit more on the marriage --

MR. McCLELLAN: So you're good.

Okay, Bob. (Laughter.) No, no, no.

Q People are trying to find out -- we've seen the violation of the law in California. We've seen the problem with the Massachusetts court. We've seen people getting quite upset about what's going on. We've seen the President saying that this is troubling. I think what the people are wondering is, when are we going to see the President step up to the plate. There are a lot of conservatives in the country, and others who are rather upset by this, and are saying, where is the leadership, where's the action, when are we going to see --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I think the American people share the President's commitment to protecting and defending the sanctity of marriage. I think the American people recognize that marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman. Obviously, there are some with different views, and as I said, everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. The President has always believed that. But this is an important principle on which the President is very firm. He has said that he is deeply troubled by the events that you are bringing up. We continue to look at this issue very closely. Obviously, if there's more to say, we will let you know at that point.

Q What more has to happen before the President --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he said -- I think you heard from him the other day. He talked about how these events are influencing him. You mentioned how some are ignoring the law and we talked earlier about how some activist judges are seeking to redefine marriage, as well.

Q When will he take action, Scott? Any action?

Q -- President about the prospect that Aristide could lose his grip in Haiti. Is that something the United States could abide? And has he been in touch with the Governor of Florida about the possibility of refugees from Haiti?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, in terms of that issue, I think that our policy with respect to boat migrants is very clear, and it remains the same. They will be returned to the country from which they departed, absent any specific indications of protection concerns. And we have a plan in place to stop any boats. So our policy is very clear.

In terms of Haiti, where things are right now, we continue to call for an end to the violence. We continue to be actively engaged in ongoing diplomatic efforts to bring about a peaceful, political solution. We have been working with other countries in CARICOM, the Organization of American States, France, Canada, and others, to come up with a consensus plan. And in fact, the State Department I think is probably talking about this as we speak. But there will be a group of ambassadors, including Ambassador Foley from the United States, and the ambassadors from France and Canada, and ambassadors representing CARICOM and the European Union, meeting today with President Aristide and the opposition to present a plan to move forward on a peaceful political solution for resolving the crisis in Haiti.

There will also be a mission, arriving tomorrow in Haiti, that will include officials from the United States, Canada, France, the Organization of American States, and CARICOM, to discuss implementing the steps in the plan with the government and the opposition. And I would point out that, obviously, one of our immediate concerns and priorities is the humanitarian side. And we are working with our international partners to make sure that the people of Haiti are getting the humanitarian assistance that they need.

And USAID is providing $50,000 to support the transport and distribution of humanitarian relief supplies. This includes 12 medical kits and 3 surgical kits. Each medical kit is equipped to serve 10,000 individuals for about a three-month period. Additionally, USAID has approved $400,000 to the Pan American Health Organization to purchase medical supplies and conduct emergency relief activities in Haiti. So that's where things are now.

Again, we remain actively engaged in these diplomatic efforts to bring about a peaceful, political solution to the situation in Haiti.

Q Who is going to represent the White House in the delegation that goes tomorrow?

MR. McCLELLAN: Actually, Assistant Secretary Noriega will be in that delegation.

Q The California Coastal Commission has ruled against the construction of a security fence along the California-Mexico border adjacent to the Pacific Ocean. And they did it on the basis of environmental reasons. Considering it's a high-traffic area for illegal immigration and border crossing, and considering that the military establishments there in the San Diego area, is the White House or the administration going to overrule the commission? They do have the power to do that.

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not familiar with the specifics of the report you're talking about. It's something that was constructed by the Border Patrol?

Q Well, there's a proposal to construct and secure a fence along the southern border there that's a high-traffic area.

MR. McCLELLAN: Proposal by?

Q By the Homeland Security.

MR. McCLELLAN: Okay. You might want to check with them and get the latest update on that from their Border Security folks.

Q Two personnel questions. Congratulations, I guess, on your brother's move. He's got quite a background. Does that mean he leaves FDA?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes. He will be assuming a new position over -- heading the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. And the President announced his intention to nominate him to that position today. We will be moving forward quickly on this nomination, because it's a very important priority to make sure we are implementing the improvements in the Medicare legislation to help our seniors get the best possible medical care.

Q Do you know who is going to do FDA, or is that not yet decided?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the acting head of FDA will be the Deputy Commissioner, Les Crawford. He is someone who is certainly very capable of assuming those responsibilities and has served in that role previously.

Q And last one, I'll probably never get an answer on, but these increasing stories about Vice President Cheney perhaps being forced off the ticket -- any comment?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I think that those are just kind of silly rumors that are out there.

Q Scott, the event next week in Louisville that you announced this morning, the conversation on the economy, is that like all of the others that he's done this year, an official event?

MR. McCLELLAN: That will be an official event, yes.

Q Can you explain how the White House makes a decision that, although he goes to these events and he makes political points, that it shouldn't be paid for by the campaign?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, if there are political events, they are paid for out of political funds. Official events -- obviously, the President of the United States is President 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He has important priorities that he must fulfill in this office. And he remains focused on those priorities. Obviously, there's going to be plenty of time to talk about the campaign going forward and the differences there. But this President is going to continue going across this country, as he has been for the last three, four years, talking to the American people about what we are trying to accomplish on their behalf. And those priorities -- at the top of those priorities are strengthening our economy and winning the war on terrorism.

Q But aren't the sites for those events and what he says at those events -- don't they fulfill a political strategy for a candidate for reelection?

MR. McCLELLAN: What they fulfill is talking with the American people about the priorities that we are working to address here in Washington, D.C. This President believes it's important to get outside of Washington, D.C. and visit with the American people and hear their concerns and talk to them about what we are doing to address those concerns.

Q Scott, can you just -- going back to Iraq briefly, can you just

expand upon how the U.S. government, on the ground, is trying to educate the common Iraqi about the principles of democracy and engage them so they're prepared for that system? MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there are a lot of town hall meetings that have been going on across the country, where you're seeing numbers -- a large number of people turn up to talk about how they move forward on democracy. Freedom and democracy are coming to Iraq. It's something that the Iraqi people did not have under the oppressive regime that has been removed from power. And so they are -- many Iraqis are realizing some of the wonders of democracy and freedom for the first time. And so they're -- and as they discuss the benefits of democracy, they're also assuming more responsibility for their future. And so Iraqis are more and more overseeing the future of their country.

Thank you.

END 1:03 P.M. EST