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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
March 23, 2004

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

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12:47 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon. I have a couple of announcements and a couple of updates to begin with. On March 29th, 2004, the President looks forward to welcoming to the White House the Prime Ministers of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, as well as the NATO Secretary General, for a meeting and ceremony marking the formal accession of these nations to the North Atlantic Treaty on that day.

President Bush will also welcome the Prime Ministers of Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia, the three nations seeking NATO membership and participating in NATO's Membership Action Plan.

These Central and East European democracies have already acted as allies through their strong solidarity and actions in the war on terrorism, and in helping to strengthen peace and democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq. As NATO acts to face these new challenges of the 21st century, the membership of these seven nations in NATO will advance the cause of freedom and strengthen the Atlantic Alliance, the central pillar of transatlantic relations.

Earlier today, the President met with President Uribe of Colombia. They had a very good meeting in the Oval Office. The United States and Colombia have a strong partnership, and the President reaffirmed our commitment to building upon our strong partnership. The President commended President Uribe for his strong leadership, particularly his efforts in standing firmly against terrorism and combating drug trafficking. The two leaders discussed the importance of continuing to work together to combat terrorism and drug trafficking.

They also discussed the announcement made earlier today about our shared commitment to expand trade and open markets by entering into discussions on a free trade agreement between our two nations. And they also discussed various regional issues, as well.

The President, after that meeting, spoke to Portuguese Prime Minister Barroso. It was a warm and friendly call. The two leaders discussed the importance of international solidarity to fight terrorism and to help the Iraqi people consolidate their freedom and security. The President expressed his appreciation for the Prime Minister's leadership on these critical issues.

And here shortly, the President -- I'll try to keep the briefing moving -- the President looks forward to meeting with his Cabinet to talk about our economy and job creation in America, as well as the progress in the war on terrorism. Our nation's economy is strong and continues to grow stronger. When you look at the unemployment rate, it is below the average of the '70s, '80s and '90s, at 5.6 percent now. The last six months have led to an increase in employment in America. Productivity remains high; disposable income is up. So the economy is moving in the right direction. But we're also in a changing economy and the President will likely discuss this with the members of the Cabinet, to talk about how we make sure that workers in America are prepared to meet the new and better jobs being created in the 21st century.

And he will also, I expect, talk about his six-point plan to make sure that we create as robust an environment as possible for job creation in America, including his efforts to make the tax relief permanent and pass a comprehensive national energy policy, and control the rising health care cost in America, and reform our legal system, among other issues.

And with that, I will be glad to go straight to the questions.

Go ahead, Tom.

Q Scott, various Israeli officials have said that they will target other Hamas leaders, other Palestinian militants. Does the United States have a message for Israel on that?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, who --

Q Various Israeli officials have said they will go after other Hamas leaders. Does the United States have anything to urge Israel?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, I think we continue to urge all parties to exercise restraint and to help restore calm in the region. That's our message. We want to get the parties back working together to move forward on the peace process, the two-state vision that the President has outlined. And that's what we continue to emphasize.

You obviously heard our comments from yesterday about the current situation, but we continue to urge all parties to exercise maximum restraint, going forward.

Q Does this further up the ante, the fact that they're promising to go after others?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, what needs to happen, again, is for the parties to get back to working together to move forward on the President's two-state vision. It's important during this time that everybody exercise maximum restraint and work to restore calm in the region. That's the President's message.

And it's important that parties live up to their obligations. All parties have obligations to meet. The Palestinian Authority certainly has obligations to meet when it comes to cracking down on terrorism. The Israelis also have responsibilities that they need to meet, as well.

Q Scott, is the President watching the 9/11 Commission testimony? And also --

MR. McCLELLAN: No.

Q No?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, he's been in meetings, as you are aware.

Q Okay. And also, why has the White House chosen Deputy Secretary Armitage to replace Dr. Rice in publicly testifying, when they have clearly different roles?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know anything about replacing. One, Dr. Rice was pleased to sit down and visit with the 9/11 Commission and answer all the questions that they wanted to bring up. The meeting went for well over four hours, even though it was scheduled, I think, for maybe half that time. And she looked forward to visiting with them. And if they want to visit further, then we'll be glad to talk to them about that.

Q One of the commission members said that it was an agreement that the White House was offering Armitage to replace the testimony of Dr. Rice. Is that --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, this goes -- this goes to the issue that we've discussed previously, that -- between the executive branch and the legislative branch. This is a legislatively-created commission, and there's a principle involved here regarding separation of powers. And I think we previously addressed that, and we've addressed that from the get-go when it comes to this issue. It's not a matter of Dr. Rice's personal preference. It's a matter of principle.

Q Where do you disagree with Mr. Clarke on the facts of what he observed and didn't observe, what you did and didn't do immediately after coming into office?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think we went through that yesterday. We went through a lot of the assertions that were being made. And I think maybe one thing to look back to is the Dick Clarke of January 30th, 2003, who submitted a letter of resignation on that day to the President of the United States. And I think this letter runs counter to what he is now asserting. Let me just read parts of this letter, and we'll be glad to make this letter available to you shortly here. This is in his own words.

Mr. Clarke says, "It has been an enormous privilege to serve you these last 24 months. I will always remember the courage, determination, calm and leadership you demonstrated on September 11th." Then he went on to say, "I will also have fond memories of our briefings for you on cyber-security and the intuitive understanding of its importance that you showed. I thank you again for the opportunity to serve you have provided me, and wish you good fortune as you lead our country through the continuing threats."

So at this time period, when he was leaving, there was no mention of the grave concerns he claims to have had about the direction of the war on terrorism, or what we were doing to confront the threat posed by Iraq, by the former regime.

Q You and others at the White House made a point of saying yesterday that the timing was suspect because it's an election year. You asked why he had waited this long to make his concerns known. He says that the book could have been published in December, but for the White House security review process.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, let's be clear here. His book went through the normal review process. It went through the normal national security review process to look at classification issues. This is standard practice to make sure that classified information is not inadvertently released. Dick Clarke could have released his book at any time, but the fact is he chose to release it at a time and in a way where he could maximize coverage to sell books, and at a time when he could have the impact to influence the political discourse. That's very clear.

Q He could have released it at any time --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, his publisher put out that he was going to release it at the end of April, I might point out to you. That's been in the public domain.

Q And could he have released it before the security review?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, certainly if he had such grave concerns, he could have raised those a year ago when he was leaving the administration, or over a year -- more than a year ago.

Q You just shifted the question, though. When did the security review conclude? In other words, when was he free as far as the United States government was concerned to publish this book?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, keep in mind that his publisher put out that it would come out at the end of April. There is a normal review process you go through in a situation like this that involves discussing information that's potentially classified for national security reasons. It went through the normal review process.

Q But he says that normal review process ended up delaying the publication of the book.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, look, Terry, he could release this book at any time. It's very clear that he chose to release it at a time --

Q No, he couldn't release it at any time --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, Bill, he chose to release it at a time when he could maximize coverage for promoting and selling his book, and he chose to release it at a time --

Q When was he free to release it?

MR. McCLELLAN: Can I finish? He chose to release it at a time when he could influence the political discourse. I can get you the exact time period of when that --

Q You've made that point, but Terry and I are trying to find out when it could have been released without -- having been reviewed for the security --

MR. McCLELLAN: I can get you the time period when it was given to us, things like that.

Q And then I just have one other question. This morning, he raised an allegation I had not heard before, which is that he says that in the presidential directive which President Bush signed after September 11th, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld requested and received within the four corners of that document, a presidential order to prepare plans for the invasion of Iraq. Is that true?

MR. McCLELLAN: This is another example of his revisionist history. As we have said, the President made it very clear that his decision at Camp David was to -- this was in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks -- was to go after the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. And we also should keep in context that during this time period, Iraq continued to shoot daily at our pilots and remained a threat to the United States. Mr. Clarke even pointed out, himself, that Iraq was a serious threat. And he talked about Iraq's history in just -- in the recent past. I quoted you some of his remarks yesterday.

Q But the presidential directive following the attacks of September 11th focused on counterterrorism and how the United States was going to, as you put it, eliminate al Qaeda --

MR. McCLELLAN: Remember, at the National Security Council meeting --

Q -- did that include -- did that include a directive to the Defense Department to prepare plans for the invasion of Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: The invasion of Iraq -- the decision to go to war in Iraq, as you know, came at a much later time. But obviously, Iraq --

Q But he's making the charge that the President was already directing the Pentagon to prepare plans to invade Iraq.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, but, obviously -- and Mr. Clarke acknowledges, himself, in his recent past that Iraq was a threat. He met -- he sat down and met with Dr. Rice shortly after he left the White House, and nowhere did he raise a concern about the action that we were taking in Iraq. And that was right at the time period when we were confronting the threat posed by -- posed by the former regime.

Q He's right that in October -- in October of 2001, when the President signed this directive, the President was directing the Pentagon to prepare plans for the invasion of Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: That's why I said, that's part -- that's part of his revisionist history.

Q That's not true?

MR. McCLELLAN: That's part of his revisionist history, that's what I'm saying --

Q Are you saying it's not true?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, that's right. I am.

Q You are saying that it's not true?

MR. McCLELLAN: That's part of -- that's just his revisionist history to make suggestions like that. He knows that at that point that our focus was on going -- was on Afghanistan and removing the Taliban and taking away the safe haven for al Qaeda.

Q You are saying from that lectern that he did -- that the President did not sign an order to prepare to invade Iraq at that time?

MR. McCLELLAN: No.

Q Scott, I have two quick questions. One, if you can clarify for me --

MR. McCLELLAN: And, Bill, I would just point out to you -- hang on one second, Goyal -- we made everything publicly known in terms of the steps we were taking to confront the threat posed by Iraq. But Iraq was a threat, and because of the action that we took, we are helping to advance freedom and democracy in a very volatile region; we are making America more secure; and making the world a safer and better place. So it was -- you all covered all the steps taken up to the decision by Saddam Hussein to continue to defy the international community.

Q -- an order was prepared to prepare plans to invade Iraq at that time. And you're saying that it was not.

MR. McCLELLAN: As you're aware, when the President sat down in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks, he directed his team to lead an effort to remove the Taliban from power and to deny al Qaeda a safe haven. That was the action we took at that time period. But during that time period, it's important to keep in mind that Iraq was a threat and Iraq was shooting at our planes. So, obviously, you are looking at those issues during that time period. Iraq has been a threat for quite some time.

Q Did he then sign such an order?

MR. McCLELLAN: I just addressed that question.

Q You said no.

Q Change the subject?

Q No.

Q Same subject.

MR. McCLELLAN: Okay, go ahead.

Q Scott, you have spoken directly with President Bush about Mr. Clarke's charges, and I wonder if you would characterize for us the President's personal reaction. Is he disappointed in these actions by someone with whom he formally worked closely and from whom he received such a glowing resignation letter? Is he stung by this in some way? How would you, having observed the President, as we have not, how would you characterize how he's reacting personally to it?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President has got a lot of priorities to focus on, and that's exactly what he's doing. The President is continuing to focus on our efforts to strengthen the economy even more and to win the war on terrorism. In fact, you're going to hear from him shortly, where he will talk about some of those priorities. The President continues to focus on our nation's highest priorities. That's where his attention stays.

Q And one other question. You said that this was part of the normal vetting process for classification issues, Mr. Clarke's book. Was a similar process undertaken with Secretary O'Neill's book?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think, as you know, the Treasury Department has addressed that matter. You can direct those questions to the Treasury Department.

Q Well, NSC, he was a members of the NSC and his book deals with some of that, so I wonder if the same process was followed.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I don't think that was here. I think the Treasury Department, you would have to look at what they did in terms of classified documents.

Q But you're unaware of any NSC vetting?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I'm not aware of that.

Q Scott, when the White House was given this book six months ago, did anyone in the Communications Department or the President's political team receive copies of the book?

MR. McCLELLAN: No.

Q No?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not aware of anything of that nature. Again, I addressed this issue earlier when you brought it up. So it's the same response.

Q And Vice President Cheney alleged yesterday that Richard Clarke was, "out of the loop." If he was so out of the loop, why was the President asking him directly on September 11th if Iraq was involved in September 11th?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, I think we went through that issue yesterday. In terms of the immediate aftermath of September 11th, of course, you want to explore all possibilities. And, in fact, Mr. Clark said that very same thing in a "Frontline" interview previously.

Q That he was out of the loop?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, he talked about the importance of keeping an open mind, and he cited how they were, in the immediate days after September 11th, keeping an open mind.

Q The charge was leveled that Clarke was out of the loop. If you read Clarke's book, even in 1991, he went with the Vice President to Riyadh to deal with the first Persian Gulf War. Then, in 2001, does the President ask people who are out of the loop who was involved in September 11th?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, you're making assumptions there. We addressed this issue yesterday, and I stand by what I said yesterday on that matter. So don't try to put words in my mouth or try to recharacterize what we said yesterday on that matter. But I think that we've been through that issue. But the fact of the matter is that he appears now to be, all of a sudden, focused on the process and not the substance.

Look at the action that we took. This administration made al Qaeda a top priority when it came into office and it certainly took the threat very seriously from al Qaeda even after September the 11th. September 11th taught us important lessons, and this President acted to take strong steps to make sure we are doing everything we can to prevent something like September 11th from ever happening again. And that was a twofold strategy, to take the offensive and go after the terrorists and bring them to justice before they could carry out their attacks on the American people -- because September 11th taught us we must confront dangers before it's too late -- and to also strengthen our homeland, to take steps to secure the homeland by creating the Department of Homeland Security, by improving intelligence gathering and sharing of information, by passing the Patriot Act to provide our law enforcement officials with the tools they need to do their job.

Now, obviously, these threats did not develop overnight. These threats had been emerging and building for quite some time. You go back to the attacks of 1990 -- the attack in 1993 on the World Trade Center, the bombing there. Go back to the attack of 1998 on the U.S. embassies. Go back to the attack on the USS Cole back in 2000. And it's important to ask people, what did they do after those attacks.

Q Well, how can he be responsible if he was out of the loop?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he was in --

Q Just --

MR. McCLELLAN: Hang on a second. Hang on a second, Norah. He was in the counterterrorism position for some eight years. Now, remember, on October 9th, that position was separated into two functions. Then you had General Wayne Downing come on board to head the counterterrorism efforts. And Dick Clarke, as I pointed out, in his letter was then focusing on cyber-security efforts.

But the fact of the matter is, he was not in most of the meetings to be able to make some of the assertions that he is now making. He was not at the Camp David meeting where the map of Afghanistan was rolled out on the table in the immediate aftermath of September 11th, and the decision was made that we're going to go after the Taliban and al Qaeda. He wasn't in those meetings. Those are the facts.

Q Scott, one on the 9/11 Commission, as well as Mr. Clarke's book. You're saying things that 9/11 taught us lessons about how to deal with terrorism. Is this country now safer? And also, you say -- they're saying we didn't know about -- we didn't understand the threat of al Qaeda before. Are we safer now from learning the lessons of 9/11 and learning about al Qaeda?

MR. McCLELLAN: Absolutely, because of the actions this President has taken to go after the terrorists before they can carry out their attacks. We've gone on the offensive. We're taking the fight to the enemy -- and because of the steps we've taken here at home to protect the homeland.

Now, Dick Clarke has made some assertions about ideas that he proposed. And remember, he was in position during all these attacks that occurred in the '90s and leading up to 2000 with the USS Cole. And he's now come out and made some claims that it was White House going to the battle stations and having meetings that prevented the Millennium plot, when, in fact, if we go back and look at the facts, it was a Customs agent, a woman who disrupted the Millennium plot. Because of the action, and the heads-up action she took, that plot was disrupted.

Yet, what did we do after that? We need to ask the questions. Instead of focusing on the sleeper cells that Dick Clarke acknowledged were here in the United States, he remained focused on what was going on overseas. And that's why when we came into office, the President said, we're going to have a comprehensive strategy to eliminate al Qaeda -- not to roll back al Qaeda, but to eliminate al Qaeda.

Q Scott, back to --

Q Wait a minute, I'm not finished. I want to follow up. Going back to --

MR. McCLELLAN: We're running up to the Cabinet meeting. So I'm going to keep going. Mike, I think --

Q Wait a minute, Scott, please. Going back --

MR. McCLELLAN: April, we're getting ready to -- the President is getting ready to meet the Cabinet. I want to be there for that --

Q -- before 9/11, did this administration fail to react to the new reality of the threat of al Qaeda? Did this administration fail to react to the new realities of al Qaeda, just before 9/11?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry? The new --

Q Did this administration --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, this administration came into office and we acted. We made -- the first major foreign policy directive of this administration was to develop a comprehensive strategy to eliminate al Qaeda. And this President --

Q You had warnings. Did this administration --

MR. McCLELLAN: -- and this President acted. And I think it's important to keep in context and for the American people to know that we did everything we could, based on what we knew at the time, prior to September 11th, and based on the tools and resources that were available to us at that time, to prevent attacks on the American people. But, obviously, September 11th taught us that there are additional steps that we need to take, and we have implemented those additional measures to prevent something like that from ever happening again.

And I'm sorry for the shortness of this. But I'll be around today. The President has got a Cabinet meeting, and you all will talk to him shortly. Thanks.

END 1:10 P.M. EST