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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
March 24, 2004

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

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1:10 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon. I have one update from yesterday and a couple of announcements, to begin with. The President spoke with Chancellor Schroeder yesterday afternoon. The President and Chancellor Schroeder had a constructive and friendly call. They discussed the need for the international community to show strength and determination in the face of terrorists, especially after the murderous attacks in Madrid. The President expressed his appreciation for the Chancellor's solidarity in the fight against terrorism and for Germany's contribution in Afghanistan.

Now for a couple of announcements. The President will travel to Paris on June 5, 2004, to meet with President Chirac. He will then travel to Normandy on June6, 2004, to participate in ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. The Normandy invasion stands as an historic achievement in which the forces of freedom, at great risk and sacrifice, joined together to turn the tide of war against fascism. Today our nations stand together still, equally committed to defeat terrorism and advance the cause of freedom.

And finally, the President looks forward to welcoming Greek Prime Minister Karamanlis to the White House on May 20, 2004. This visit will provide an opportunity to deepen our partnership with Greece in pursuit of democracy, prosperity and peace in Southeastern Europe and the greater Middle East. The leaders will also discuss final preparations for a successful and safe Olympics in Athens, as the summer games return to the land of their birth this August.

And with that, I will be glad to take your questions. Mike, you had it up first.

Q Scott, your main complaint with Mr. Clarke's strategy has been that he wanted to roll back terrorism, while the President wanted to -- or roll back al Qaeda, while the President wanted to eliminate al Qaeda. What would have been wrong with taking interim steps in the months before September 11th, instead of waiting for the grand plan that was presented on September 4th?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Mike, I think that we did take steps to change some of the ideas that had been discussed in the previous administration. In fact, Mr. Clarke has stated such in his comments that have now been released in a transcript by a news station. He made that very clear, that we were -- immediately upon coming into office, this President directed the administration to provide -- or to pursue a comprehensive strategy to eliminate al Qaeda, not roll it back. And that process began very early on. But at the same time, this administration began looking at some of the ideas that had been discussed, but not decided on in the previous administration, and worked to come to some decisions on those ideas and begin changing policy.

In fact, yesterday Secretary Powell spoke to one part of the policy that we began to change early on in the administration. He, in his testimony, cited the President's February 16th letter to President Musharraf, of Pakistan, and this was in 2001, shortly after coming into office.

The President said in the letter: "Pakistan is an important member of the community of nations and one with which I hope to build better relations, particularly as you move ahead to return to civilian constitutional government. We have concerns of which you are aware, but I am hopeful we can work together on our differences in the years ahead. We should work together to address Afghanistan's many problems. The most pressing of these is terrorism, and it inhibits progress on all other issues. The continued presence of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization is a direct threat to the United States and its interests that must be addressed. I believe al Qaeda also threatens Pakistan's long-term interest. We join the United Nations in passing additional sanctions against the Taliban to bring bin Laden to justice and to close the network of terrorist camps in their territory."

So this administration, from the very beginning, looked at al Qaeda and took that threat very seriously.

Q If that's the case, why do you -- repeatedly, from the podium, other administration officials, have complained that he was talking about rolling back al Qaeda. What was wrong with rolling back al Qaeda while you pursued this comprehensive strategy?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, there were ideas, again, that were discussed in the previous administration going back to -- I believe it was 1998, as Mr. Clarke points out in his own words -- but those ideas were not decided upon when it came to our policy towards Pakistan, our policy to Uzbekistan, or policy toward the Taliban. And we began pursuing changes in those policies from very early on, as Mr. Clarke has said in his very own words.

Q Okay, just one other quick thing. His status was demoted -- he was demoted, his status was reduced. He was not replaced by anyone else. Why isn't it a fair conclusion that that reflected a lower level of attention and concern about terrorism than the previous administration --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I think actually he suggested that his position be split off and that there be a cyber-security --

Q I'm sorry, this is before that --

MR. McCLELLAN: -- there be a cyber-security position and there be a counterterrorism head.

Q -- at the beginning of the administration, as you know, he felt his rank had been reduced. That's why he didn't show up at meetings --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think he made a suggestion that maybe it had Cabinet rank, and that wasn't the case. That was clearly not the case.

Q Before I get to my question, can I ask you about the Chirac meeting and what the agenda is there, and whether it's fair to look at that through the prism of the Spanish elections? Is this bridge-building with France?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, we want to continue to work together on common challenges with France. The President has made that very clear. We have had a strong relationship, despite differences that we may have had, but -- in the past. There are many areas where we work together. And as we get closer to that meeting, we will obviously provide you more information about the agenda. It's just now been scheduled, so those are details that have yet to be fully worked on.

Q Can I ask you, too, about the government's, or the trustee's finding that Medicare goes broke in 2019? Do you have any reason to dispute that finding?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, I think it's -- what we look at is the reasons behind their analysis. And I think that you have to look -- go to that. Health care costs have been rising, and this President has a plan to reduce rising health care costs. And Congress needs to act on that plan. We need to act to reform our medical liability system. That has been stuck in the Senate. And it will provide savings. We need to act on the health care credits that the President has proposed, to help low-income workers. Congress needs to act on the President's call for association health plans, to where small businesses can band together to purchase insurance. And we need to act to, also, reduce medical errors. Those are ways that we can address the rising health care costs, and this President has a plan to do that.

Q Is it fair to blame the new law that he signed in December?

MR. McCLELLAN: The biggest reason, if you look at the report, the biggest reason for the change in the bottom line is rising health care costs. It makes that very clear in the report. Now, in terms of the reforms and improvements that we made for our seniors by providing them prescription drug coverage and providing them more choices and better benefits so that they can get the health care that meets their individual needs, those reforms, obviously, were just passed. We need to give them time to work. There were some cost-control measures within that legislation that will help address some of the long-term issues related to Medicare.

Q Scott, in the week following September 11th, there was a presidential directive that dealt largely with the plan to invade Afghanistan. But also in that document, Rumsfeld requested and received permission to draw up new contingency plans for Iraq. Why was that necessary?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Iraq was shooting at our pilots who were patrolling the no-fly zone. Iraq remained a threat in that time period. And so, obviously, when the President is making a decision to go into Afghanistan and remove the Taliban regime from power, and to go after the al Qaeda network that had been provided a safe harbor in Afghanistan, it's important to keep in mind that a country, or a regime, like the one that was in Iraq, might try to take advantage of the situation.

Q Why would you need different plans that what were already on the shelf?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, it's looking at contingencies. Iraq may try to -- Iraq might have tried to take advantage of the action that we were taking in Afghanistan. And they were firing at our pilots in the no-fly zone on an almost daily basis during that time period.

Q As you know, Richard Clarke has used this to make the suggestion that this is an example of this administration using 9/11 as a pretext for going to war with Iraq, and that this was the first step in that process --

MR. McCLELLAN: Norah, I think that the facts just contradict his assertions. I think you all in the media documented this very well. The fact of the matter is that the directive to drop a plan to go to war in Iraq, and the decision to go to war in Iraq, was made much later. The priority in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks was on Afghanistan, and going after the Taliban and al Qaeda, and bringing those individuals who were involved in terrorism to justice. And that's exactly what this President did.

He met at Camp David with his National Security Council and said, we are going to act decisively to go into Afghanistan with military action to remove the Taliban regime from power, and to go after the al Qaeda network. And that's exactly what we did, and it was well-documented in the media, I might point out.

Q Thank you. And then you have suggested, in talking about Clarke, that part of his failures were that he called for a rolling back, rather than eliminating al Qaeda, is that right? That that was something that Clarke had advocated, rolling back rather than eliminating?

MR. McCLELLAN: There were some ideas of the previous administration that, at the request of Dr. Rice, Mr. Clarke presented to us very early on in the administration. And they were aimed more at rolling back al Qaeda. I think Mike went to this question. Very early on, the President wanted to take decisive action to go after al Qaeda and eliminate the al Qaeda network.

Q I asked that question because I went back and I looked at your statements, and I looked at Dr. Rice's statements about Clarke's failure in wanting to roll back, and yet in this new transcript that's been released, Clarke specifically says, "and then we changed the strategy from one of roll-back with al Qaeda over the course of five years, which it had been, to a new strategy that called for rapid elimination."

MR. McCLELLAN: That's referring to the administration, Norah. That's referring to the White House, the President, this administration.

Q Right, so, so -- but previously, you had suggested that Clarke was only calling for a roll-back and not an elimination. And here --

MR. McCLELLAN: The President is the one that directed the administration to pursue a comprehensive strategy to eliminate al Qaeda. I'm glad you brought this up. Let me refer back to this transcript because I think it's important, given the recent assertions that have been made by Mr. Clarke. I mean, Dick Clarke -- and this is Dick Clarke in his own words, and this is in a conversation with some members of the media, including some White House reporters, a conference call. And Dick Clarke in his own words says: "I've got about seven points" -- and let me put this in context. This was following a Time Magazine article in the Spring * of 2002 that was essentially saying the White House didn't do anything to follow through on a plan that was supposedly given to it by the previous administration.

Mr. Clarke says: "I've got about seven points. The first point, I think the overall point is, there was no plan on al Qaeda that was passed from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration. Second point is that the Clinton administration had a strategy in place, effectively dating from 1998" -- goes to Mike's question here -- "and there were a number of issues on the table since 1998. And they remained on the table when that administration went out office -- issues like aiding the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan; changing our Pakistan policy; changing our policy toward Uzbekistan. And in January 2001, the incoming Bush administration was briefed on the existing strategy."

Mr. Clarke continued, "They were also briefed on these issues, these series of issues that had not been decided on in a couple of years. The third point is, the Bush administration decided then -- you know, mid January -- to do two things, one, vigorously pursue the existing policy, including all of the lethal covert action findings." Then he went on to -- Mr. Clarke went on to say, "The second thing the administration decided to do is to initiate a process to look at those issues which had been on the table for a couple of years and get them decided. So point five, that process which was initiated in the first week in February, decided in principle in the spring to add to the existing Clinton strategy, and to increase CIA resources, for example, for covert action fivefold to go after al Qaeda. The sixth point, the newly-appointed deputies" -- and he goes on to say -- "then tasked the development of the implementation details of these new decisions that they were endorsing and sending out to the principals.

"Over the course of the summer," -- last point -- Mr. Clarke goes on to say -- "they developed implementation details. The principals met at the end of the summer, approved them in their first meeting, changed the strategy by authorizing the increase in funding fivefold; changing the policy on Pakistan; changing the policy on Uzbekistan; changing the policy on the Northern Alliance assistance; and then change the strategy from one of roll-back with al Qaeda over the course of five years, which it had been, to a new strategy that called for the rapid elimination al Qaeda." That is, in fact, the time line Mr. Clarke says.

And then there's a question asked, "When was that presented to the President?" Mr. Clarke says, "Well, the President was briefed throughout the process."

Q Scott, as you just told Norah, that he's speaking on behalf of the President, on behalf of the White House in that background briefing.

MR. McCLELLAN: Dick Clarke, in his own words, provides a point-by-point rebuttal of what he now asserts. This shatters the cornerstone of Mr. Clarke's assertions.

Q Fair enough. What would you say -- and my hunch is he will say something like, well, I'm the briefer paid by the White House to mouth the party line here -- he'll say, now I'm a free man, and here's what I really think.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I'm not sure exactly what he will say in response to this because these are his own words. This goes directly to Mr. Clarke's credibility. And I think he has some questions to answer. He was the one saying this to members of the White House press corps and some other media -- members of the media.

Q So why did you decide to out him, as the background briefer?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think that's a correct -- I disagree with the premise of your question, because it was Fox News who yesterday came to us and said they had a tape of this conversation with Mr. Clarke.

Q Wait, wait, wait, wait -- but it was on background. I've got tapes with plenty of people speaking on background. Can I go and tell the world who they are?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, and I think that we always listen to your request when you come to us and ask if something can be put on the record. And there are times when we are able to fulfill those requests. You are very well aware of some of those times. In fact, after Fox News was able to air this, we reached out to other members of the media, including yourself, I believe, to let you know that you could go back and use this information on the record.

Q And I appreciate that, but --

MR. McCLELLAN: But let's -- no, no --

Q -- the question is, why? Why did this one --

MR. McCLELLAN: Let's -- let's remember why are we are having this conversation -- because Mr. Clarke made assertions that we have said are flat-out wrong. And it's important for the American people to have the facts. Mr. Clarke, certainly decided on his own to go ahead and reveal conversations that were considered private previously.

Q On the issue of credibility, a staff report of the 9/11 Commission was released yesterday, and in it, it said that they had not found any reliable evidence to support the Sudanese claim that they offered Osama bin Laden to the United States in 1996. This is despite a speech by President Clinton to the Long Island Association in 2002, where he said, and I'll quote: "I did not bring him here because we had no basis to hold him." And he also went on to say, "And he pleaded with the Saudis to take him." Unquote. Do you think something like this undermines the credibility of the conclusions that the commission is going to reach in matters like this?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, I haven't had a chance to look at the commission report. We certainly are working very closely and cooperatively with the commission so that they can get to bottom of this matter.

Q It's in their opening statement before any witnesses testified yesterday. That's why --

MR. McCLELLAN: And they made the claim that --

Q Yes, that there was no evidence to support the Sudanese claim that they offered Osama bin Laden to the United States in 1996.

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, and again, I think that these are issues that the commission is looking into. We are working to make sure from our standpoint that they have access to all the information that they requested -- that they have requested. That's exactly what we have done. We have provided unprecedented access to information, including our most sensitive national security documents. And that's the spirit in which we're working.

Obviously, their work continues. They're looking at a number of issues, and we want to help them. But what's most important is that we learn the lessons of September 11th, and this administration has by the actions that we are taking. Obviously, if there's additional information that the commission can provide us that would help us prevent another tragedy like September 11th from ever happening again, we want to have that information sooner than later.

Q On Monday, you and Condoleezza Rice both had to respond to numerous aggressive questions about the Israeli killing of --

MR. McCLELLAN: Just on Monday?

Q Well, just -- I'm talking about Monday.

MR. McCLELLAN: Okay. It's kind of a daily thing for me.

Q -- about the Israeli killing of mass murdering Hamas leader, Yassin, which you both did very effectively, and in accordance with the President's expressed defense on Monday of Israel's right to defend herself from terror. My first part of the question --

MR. McCLELLAN: How many parts are there to this question?

Q Just two. Just two. Will that State Department spokesman, who completely contradicted you and contradicted Ms. Rice and contradicted the President by announcing, "we are deeply troubled," will he be either fired or required to publicly apologize?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think my friend and colleague at the State Department contradicted anything we said --

Q Yes, he did. He said, we're deeply troubled.

MR. McCLELLAN: And I said the same thing, Les.

Q Yes, but this spokesman called the Israeli killing of Yassin something which "increases tension and doesn't help our efforts to resume progress toward peace." And my question: To your knowledge, has this spokesman also criticized our killing of both of Saddam's sons and our efforts to capture or kill Osama bin Laden?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that my colleague at the State Department has said what we have said here at the White House, that it's important for there to be a Palestinian Prime Minister and cabinet that cracks down on terrorism and that dismantles terrorist organizations. But we --

Q Do you disagree with The New York Times, when they said that the White House -- that the Bush administration has contradicted itself? That was their headline yesterday, that you contradicted yourself.

MR. McCLELLAN: Les, I think we were saying the same thing. I said the very same thing that he said.

Q Scott, two quick questions. On the contingency planning on the directive a couple of days after September 11th, was it just Iraq that there was a contingency plan for, or were there -- sort of a global thing, other potential hotspots?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again -- and I didn't get into any specifics about what may have been -- what may or may not have been a supposed policy directive, and I hope you will keep that in context, one. We're talking about some highly classified national security matters. But I think at the time period, it was well-documented that the President's focus was on Afghanistan and going after the Taliban, and going after al Qaeda. That was very clear. You all reported that all during that time period.

Now, what I said earlier was that, obviously, when the President made a decision to take decisive action to go into Afghanistan, it's important to keep in mind that in that region, which is a dangerous area, there are countries like Iraq that remained a threat, a country -- or a regime that was firing on our pilots patrolling the no-fly zone on a daily basis. That was the circumstances at that time period.

And obviously, you want to make sure you take into account contingencies if -- if -- or in the case that Iraq decides to take advantage of that situation. That's what we did.

Q Was that a "yes," Iraq was the only contingency?

MR. McCLELLAN: That's what we did at that time period.

Q Both those regimes are now gone. Would you consider declassifying that directive?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Terry, we always consider those issues. But I don't know of anything that's going to change on this matter at this time period. I think that's something that's declassified at a much later time period. Obviously, there's still progress we are working to make in both those countries, as well.

Q Scott, just one more on Clarke. Given the fact that you're pointing to this transcript, reading through it, saying it's a question of his credibility --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, it's his own words.

Q Right.

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm just repeating his own words.

Q Right. So given that, given the fact that he definitely had this quoted as toeing the administration's line before reporters, why do you think he is saying what he's saying?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, like I said, this goes to his credibility, and I think that those are questions that Mr. Clarke needs to answer. It was Mr. Clarke who went out and made assertions that this administration was doing nothing prior to 9/11, that we were not taking the threat from al Qaeda seriously, that there was a delay, that we moved slowly. But Dick Clarke, in his words acknowledges, one, that the administration took al Qaeda very seriously and began a process to address the threat very early on; and two, our administration was able to come to quick decisions on a number of issues that had been on the table for several years; and three, that the President directed the White House to develop a new comprehensive strategy of eliminating rather than rolling al Qaeda. You cannot square Dick Clarke's new assertions with his past words. That's very clear.

I would like to just point to a couple of other parts of this transcript from Mr. Clarke's interview with reporters. There's a question by a reporter. Question: What is your response to the suggestion in the August 12th -- well, in the Time Magazine article that the Bush administration was unwilling to take on board the suggestions made in the Clinton administration because of animus against the -- general animus against the foreign policy?

Mr. Clark: "I think if if there was a general animus that clouded their vision, they might not have kept the same guy dealing with the terrorism issue. This is the one issue where the National Security Council leadership decided continuity was important and kept the same guy around, the same team in place. That doesn't sound like animus against the previous team to me," Mr. Clarke went on to say.

Then a reporter -- here it's listed, Jim Angle, White House Correspondent: "You're saying that the Bush administration did not stop anything that the Clinton administration was doing while it was making these decisions, and by the end of the summer had increased money for covert action fivefold, is that correct?"

Mr. Clarke: "All of that is correct."

Now, two other parts I want to refer to, as well:

Question by a reporter: "Were all of those issues part of an alleged plan that was late December, and the Clinton team decided not to pursue because it was too close to --" Mr. Clarke jumps in here: "There was never a plan, Andrea. What there was, was these two things -- one a description of the existing strategy, which included a description of the threat; and two, those things which had been looked at over the course of two years and which were still on the table."

So the follow-up question: "So there was nothing that developed, no documents or no new plan of any sort?

Mr. Clarke: "There was no new plan."

Question: "No new strategy, I mean. I don't want to get into semantics."

Mr. Clarke: "Plan, strategy -- there was no, nothing new."

And later on, again this is Jim Angle here, asking this question: "So just to finish up, if we could then, so what you're saying is that there was no -- one, there was no plan; two, there was no delay; and that actually, the first changes since October of '98 were made in the spring months just after the administration came into office?

Mr. Clarke: "You got it. That's right."

And finally, because I think this one is important, as well, Mr. Clarke towards the end of the interview went on to say: "You know, the other thing to bear in mind is the shift from the roll-back strategy to the elimination strategy. When President Bush told us in March to stop swatting at flies and just solve this problem, then that was the strategic direction that changed the NSPD" -- meaning the National Security Policy Directive -- "from one of roll-back to one of elimination."

So those are Mr. Clarke in his own words, and his own words contradict what he now asserts.

Q Is he a liar or is he just forgetful?

Q Scott, Scott?

MR. McCLELLAN: April.

Q Is he a liar or just forgetful?

MR. McCLELLAN: You've had your turn.

April.

Q Scott, back to Terry's question. Are these just basically talking points? We know every day all of you start from the beginning of the day to disseminate -- well, to figure out what you're going to say to the media, how you're going to present your spin, I guess, you would say in some ways. And was he just following talking points, the spin line?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know if that's -- I don't know if that's quite an accurate description of the way we start our day or what we do.

Q Well, I mean when you start your day, you guys are talking about what you want to put out there and how you're going to put it out there, and what you should not say. And was he, indeed, following the line that you were given here that day?

MR. McCLELLAN: This was Mr. Clarke describing what he knew in his own words. This was not anybody but Mr. Clarke making these comments.

Q But, Scott, in this administration when reporters go and ask you, other persons around here, we get the same words -- the same words come out. There's no variation or anything. Was he --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think that's a sign that we're following the President's direction and his policies.

Q You're following talking points, correct?

MR. McCLELLAN: No. Again, you need to separate out some of this. This was Mr. Clarke, on his own, making these comments back in the spring * of 2002. This was him in his own words.

Q Scott, a couple of things. Back on Hamas, first of all, on Monday you described Yassin as a terrorist leader of a terrorist organization. Why then is his death deeply troubling?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think what we described was the incident. Obviously, we've always said that Israel has a right to defend herself, but we also have always said Israel needs to keep in mind the consequences of the actions that she decides to take. All parties need to keep in sight the consequences of their actions.

There is a peace process that we are working with the parties in the region to help the Israelis and Palestinians move forward on, the President's two-state vision that he outlined. And obviously, all parties under that process have obligations and responsibility that are important to meet. And our focus is on trying to get the parties to work together to move forward on the President's two-state vision. That's why the President announced yesterday that if circumstances permit, we're going to be sending our team back into the Middle East next week to talk to some parties in the region. It's important that during this time period, that all parties work to restore calm.

Q On other subject, if I could. The Pledge of Allegiance case was argued before the High Court today. How significant is this issue and legal case in the President's view?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think that we've made our view very clear. We believe that the Pledge of Allegiance is an important right that ought to be upheld by the Supreme Court. We've stated that repeatedly. And we continue to hold that view.

Someone is interrupting me. Thank you all.

END 2:02 P.M. EST * Summer